In a shop on wheels, youngsters discover 'I Can Build It Myself'

Two cardboard signs at the entry steps of the long, white school bus sum up Sheila Dawson's philosophy about teaching. One reads: ''Every project that leaves this woodshop is absolutely perfect.'' And the other: ''Let us celebrate their differences and nurture their potential.'' These signs, Ms. Dawson says, were created as food for thought for overly critical parents.

Enrichment classes for young children are becoming increasingly popular, according to Ms. Dawson - and she should know. Most days, for the past nine years, the dynamic San Diegan has gassed up her 34-foot-long refurbished school bus and visited numerous schools and neighborhoods in her area, teaching children (aged 3 through 10) the art of woodcrafting.

Her students make cars, boats, puzzles, rockets, tool boxes, and bird houses - to name just a few of the many projects. Ms. Dawson calls her program ''I Can Build It Myself'' - and she makes sure the children do just that.

''I'm only here to coach and guide,'' she says. ''My goal is to draw initiative back to the child. I give each of the children whatever they need to have a successful experience and to feel good about what they accomplish - but I never do any of their work for them.''

In the bus that Ms. Dawson, together with her husband, Ray, converted into a traveling shop, there are 12 adjustable workbenches stocked with quality adult hand-tools. The only adjustment she has made is to cut three inches off the handles of hammers to suit them to tiny hands.

In four one-hour classes, for which she charges $25 a month, children are taught basic safety rules, how to use a vise, miter boxes, hand drills, and block planes. Ms. Dawson also shows them how to nail and sand properly. After each session children descend from the bus with a fine layer of sawdust from head to toe, a smile, a completed project, and usually increased self-esteem.

''In my program there are no mistakes,'' Ms. Dawson says. ''We simply learn from our experiences and try to improve from those experiences.''

Her son Glenn, now 13, is in large part the reason the rolling shop exists today. When Glenn was 2, Ms. Dawson scouted toy stores for a wooden hook-and-eye train. She couldn't find one anywhere; so she asked her husband to build one.

''Ray . . . was all wrapped up in a project of his own,'' she recalls. ''He said, 'No, but I'll show you how to do it.' And that's how I got started.''

That train - her first project - now sits on the dashboard of the bus.

Currently Ms. Dawson is not just teaching children; she also gives workshops to interested adults so they can begin their own ''I Can Build It Myself'' programs. In addition, she's working on a book that will explain approximately a dozen of her projects. She says she isn't worried about competition - she is far more interested in having the program reach as many children as possible.

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