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Most children have no shortage of imagination but they can sometimes have trouble finding a place where they can let that imagination run wild. For those children, and adults, who need an environment that will foster rather than stifle their creativity, Leonardo’s Basement, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the solution.
Leonardo’s Basement is a place that to a certain extent escapes definition but Executive Director and Founder, Steve Jevning, says that it’s “a place for children, teens, and adults who need to build things.”
By needing to build things, Jevning explains that he means that “they need to build projects that spring from their own imaginations. They need to do it on their timeline, they need to do it with some assistance but they have a vision and they need to fulfill it.”
The organization was born in 1998 out of an after-school program in a South Minneapolis elementary school. It was created by parents for the children “who wanted to stay after school to work on projects, do science experiments, go on field trips, all kinds of things that they weren't being able to do during the school day.”
Leonardo’s Basement is treasure trove of what, upon first glance, most people might call junk. The Newton’s Cradle made of bowling balls in the entrance is just one sign of the creativity that exists within.
“The organizing principle is really simple,” says Jevning, “that young people have ideas and they want to figure out how to turn them into something and a lot of their life gets programmed for them in school, or even at home. And so freedom is a big part of what's necessary in the programing and that freedom can be very clearly demonstrated in how space is set up.”
To the children and adults who visit Leonardo’s Basement, it is filled with anything but junk. The items strewn around the open space range from the inside of a deconstructed baby grand piano to components more usually found in a computer store.
There are tools to be used by everyone and the children have no inhibitions about using hand saws, drills, and glue guns. They are allowed to do so freely, as long as they wear their safety glasses.
The only rules in Leonardo’s Basement, which are posted in large letters on one wall, are “Be safe. Be nice. Have fun.” The emphasis is on freedom for the children to do exactly what they want and while safety is always a first concern, they are not afraid to let children experiment in a way that wouldn’t be allowed in school.
It’s a place for adults and children alike to be truly free, a resource for the community that has grown steadily over the years. “Now we see about 5000 people a year,” says Jevning, and “2200 of them are children between the ages of 6 and 14.”
They’ve grown to accommodate woodworking, robotics, and even the occasional welding session, a combination of engineering, art, and technology,” says Jevning.
Shawn Bortel, a Lionsgate Work Coordinator explains that the Basement is “unique for me because I am able to bring students that I work with, young adults from Lionsgate, which is a school for high functioning students with autism, so we’re able to come on a weekly basis and volunteer.”
The lack of teacher-driven structure allows a freedom that is enjoyed by everyone. “We really integrate nicely with Leonardo’s Basement,” says Bortel. “I would say this the one place that has really welcomed in our students to not only do everything from preparing the art materials to really getting in there and working with the kids. It’s a really good opportunity for our students.”
Jevning’s passion for the organization is driven in part by “a deep-seated belief in the notion that people who like to build things have a lot to contribute to society. A lot of our kids are kids just like I was when I was a kid. I didn't like school, I wasn't a good reader, I spent time most of my days looking out of the window thinking about what I was going to do when the bell rang at three o'clock.”
He truly wishes to foster that uniqueness that makes all of these children special. “We want every student who is here for one week or one year or five years to have the confidence and the skills to transform the world,” he says
“Those builder kids aren't often recognized in the school setting and certainly as schools have become more interested in academic achievement and passing tests, those kids are overlooked so that's the biggest motivation for me.”
Leonardo’s Basement is giving these children the chance to truly express themselves and learn in a way that doesn’t conform to the modern-day ideas of a school education. “The important thing to recognize about projects that get made here is that they are kids' projects or adult students' projects. They're not teacher driven, they're student driven.”
To the outsider walking in, Leonardo’s Basement might resemble chaos, children running around, using saws, and playing musical instruments but there is most definitely the most amazing focus to be seen as each child puts their mind and focus towards their creation.
Jevning’s own passion, imagination, and creativity is clear when he describes the joy that Leonardo’s Basement brings him. What he enjoys most is “that idea of being able to see those lights go on above kids' heads when they figure out a problem, when they accomplish something that they either didn't think they could or were surprised that they did because it wasn't what they set out to do. All of those things are huge daily rewards.”