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Mary’s little lamb isn’t the only farm animal that makes children laugh and play. Today, chickens are enriching educational settings from pre-K to college. They’re soothing stress, teaching important lessons about sustainability and responsibility, and helping with behavioral issues. Plus, there’s the added benefit of tasty eggs.
Young Children & Chickens
Kelda Adair, lead teacher and director at Gardenview Montessori in Bellingham, Washington, says chickens pair beautifully with the Montessori teaching philosophy. While most Montessori schools have a pet or two on campus, Gardenview’s chickens weren’t planned. “A parent surprised us with them,” Adair says of the hens they first kept in an existing dog run in 2006. “Since then, we’ve expanded our knowledge.”
That knowledge includes teaching the preschool and kindergarten students about the lifecycle of a chicken. “The last couple of years, we’ve gotten fertilized eggs, and the kids saw the whole process,” she says.
The children are involved in caring for the chickens, too. Buckets marked either for the chickens to eat or for compost allow the children to share food scraps and learn important lessons about sustainability. “The kids even bring scraps from home,” Adair says. “They empty the chicken bucket a couple of times a day.”
The dog run didn’t serve them for long. As barter for preschool fees, a talented parent built a kid-friendly coop. “Big doors on the outside open up, so the children don’t have to go inside the coop to collect eggs,” Adair says. “The nest boxes, which are actually Rubbermaid tubs, are down low, at their eye level. Even toddlers help collect eggs, which they carefully carry from the coop to the kitchen.”
The on-site kitchen uses the eggs for meals, but there are always more than they need. “We sell the rest to the children’s families, which gives us enough to cover the cost of chicken feed,” Adair says. “It works out well.”
Currently, Gardenview has six laying hens and five chicks. “But two are roosters,” Adair says. “They will go to student families since roosters aren’t legal to keep in the city. They will become pets or go into a pot.” The roosters provide yet another learning opportunity for the children, who get to see where eggs come from, as well as the chicken they eat.
At Desert Garden Montessori in Phoenix, students start as early as infancy and can attend through high school, but it’s the elementary students that Sustainability Coordinator Eric Caballes says interact with the chickens the most.
The school keeps the chickens as part of a small campus farm, which also includes goats. The eggs are used in a student-run café to make breakfast burritos. “Extra eggs get sold to families, which pays for their feed,” Caballes says.
Caballes, who took over running the school farm just last year, says getting the children to clean pens, feed and water the chickens and goats, and collect eggs occurred in a free-flowing sort of way. “This coming year, I hope to incorporate more scheduled time,” he says. “Groups will be in charge from week to week with their care.”
When a Desert Garden student struggles behaviorally, the child is often sent out to the farm where he or she helps clean pens or feed the chickens. “It gives them a new environment,” Caballes says. “It really calms them down.”
Linda Mercier, who manages the school’s organic kitchen and is also a certified teacher, has seen the calming effect. “If a kid’s not listening and can’t sit still, a teacher might suggest they go talk with the chickens,” she says. “Animals just seem to understand when you need a little TLC.”
The coop is near the kitchen, so if a teacher has children go out there, Mercier knows about it. “Students don’t feel like they have us right on top of them,” she explains. “But we’re always aware.”
Sometimes Mercier will collect the eggs with students. She has seen children visibly calm down while petting a chicken. “If a child can take care of an animal and see that something else needs their help, it helps them, too,” she says. “You can have a child that’s going off the wall, and after a few minutes, they’re totally different.”
It isn’t only children that chickens can help calm. Tanya Bailey is the principal animal-assisted interactions specialist for the Pet Away Worry and Stress program for the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service. “The PAWS mission is to provide animal-assisted interaction, a consistent service, so students can come to the same place at the same time and engage with animals,” Bailey says of the weekly sessions where a variety of privately owned animals help students to relax. The program was started as a way to mitigate students’ stress.
“Animals have a grounding force,” she says. “For some students, their pets are their best friends.” It’s not practical for students to have their own pets on campus, so PAWS gives them the opportunity to wind down weekly. “Students are so serious nowadays,” she says.
Bailey believes many students have lost the importance of just having fun and being silly. “Animals help people engage and come out of their shell,” she says.
Bailey owns two hens that attend the sessions: Woodstock, a 10-year-old Silkie, and Tilly, a 2½-year-old hen that will take over for Woodstock one day. Not all chickens are suitable for animal-assisted therapy. “It’s our ethical responsibility not to force a chicken to do this work,” she says. As Woodstock ages, Bailey has noticed that the time period she can sit comfortably and participate has diminished. Tilly enjoys sessions for an hour or more, while half an hour is now enough for Woodstock.
For these two chickens, and the five or six others over the years that Bailey says have risen to the call of animal-assisted interaction, their enjoyment blends with that of the students, who arrive at sessions stressed. “They sit around a table and pet the chickens, and the chickens get really quiet, almost dreamy,” Bailey says. “I call it chicken meditation. And the students also get quiet and relaxed and smile.”
The chickens help build confidence, too. Many students see the chickens and are immediately afraid. “You’d be surprised how many are convinced a chicken will peck them to death,” she says. “The most common first question I get is, ‘Is this chicken going to hurt me?’ But they go from being so deathly afraid to building up the courage to pet the chicken. And then they enjoy it. Students will sit up taller in their chair. It’s like they’ve done something big today. Petting a chicken successfully feels good.”
Bailey has been in the field for 20 years and feels that chickens bring a powerfully unique component to the concept of therapy animals. “It helps to dispel fear and phobias,” Bailey says. “And it gets people thinking. Chickens are smart. They have unique personalities. We should consider their welfare and quality of life.”
At Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, chickens first came to campus in the late 1990s when two agriculture students did an experiment comparing egg production between hens fed cafeteria scraps versus those given traditional feed. After the project, the chickens stayed and were adopted for care by campus groups.
Then, in 2005, chickens were added to the university’s composting projects. But according to Jonathan Lantz-Trissel, who then worked as recycling and waste reduction manager at the university, the chickens flattened the piles. With air getting in, they couldn’t sustain the high temperatures required to generate compost. “So we kicked the chickens out,” he says. But the chickens didn’t go far. Student groups once again took on their care.
The eggs are eaten by upper-class students, and those caring for them learn quickly how that chickens require consistent care. “With a vegetable garden, the students can go out with their friends and nothing immediately goes wrong,” Lantz-Trissel says. “But these are living creatures. They need attention two times a day. You can’t skimp.”
Lantz-Trissel, who now works as the university’s sustainability coordinator, says there’s a learning curve for students. Many are city kids, unfamiliar with chickens or farming of any kind. They find out quickly that cutting corners for convenience won’t work. “We went through five bags of feed in a week when food was tossed in a shallow pan on the ground rather than in the feeders,” he says. “The food got scratched out and wasted.”
Like Bailey, he sees students who are amazed that each chicken has a personality all its own. They aren’t just production animals. “A lot of students come here thinking they’ll graduate and go onto do small-scale farming,” he says. “This gives them a sense of how much work it really takes.”
Hatching a plan to get chickens into a school setting requires some forethought, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Here are a few helpful insights for individuals as well as those starting flocks in educational or other institutionalized settings.
Caballes recommends learning as much as possible before starting. When he took over the school farm, he admits it was a crash course. Advanced knowledge would have been helpful. In Phoenix, the annual Tour de Coops event provided Caballes, a fellow teacher, and several students with ideas. They toured others’ setups, saw how individuals manage care in their unique environments and learned more about chicken keeping in general. Tour de Coops events are held in cities across the nation, often coupled with a sustainability and back-to-basics living focus. And they’re fun. “I learned a lot,” Caballes says.
Bailey says, “Safety is No. 1.” She wouldn’t feel comfortable doing events with pregnant populations, infants or people with compromised immune systems. Hand sanitizer is a must, and people who interact with chickens and other animals at PAWS sessions are reminded to use it. Bailey also recommends a team of people to organize and get these sorts of programs started and then manage them. “We do our homework, and continue to do it,” she says. “Community buy-in is also important.”
PAWS programs occur at three sites across the University of Minnesota’s campuses. The program is not a one-person job and requires constant monitoring of the animal-owner teams, which are registered through one of four national programs. But PAWS is rewarding. Bailey believes that animal-assisted interaction is good for people on an -individual basis as well as helping society as a whole. Students with preconceived notions about chickens come away seeing them in a new light, and the experiences enlighten people and they foster more compassion. “Ultimately, we will treat each other with more empathy, too,” she says.
Lantz-Trissel warns that staff dedication is required. “There always comes a time in the fall semester when the chickens have no food or water,” he says. “Somebody has to take responsibility.”
At EMU, that someone is him. Even when students are dedicated and doing a good job, he says, “Students come and go. You get them all trained, and then they leave.”
The chickens don’t take holiday and summer breaks either. Still, Lantz-Trissel says that chickens bring a lot to a campus. In fact, a couple of students have even chosen Eastern Mennonite University because of the chickens.
The flock at Gardenview Montessori also draws parents who want their young children to experience them. While some planning and preparation is required, Adair has only good things to say about the chickens that first arrived at her school as a parent’s surprise.
“It’s such a fun thing for the kids, and chickens are one of the easier pets to have,” she says. “If you have the space, then just do it.”
This article originally ran in the November/December 2016 issue of Chickens.