HAMILTON, VIRGINIA - For students at The Farm School in Hamilton, Virginia, the classroom is the great outdoors. The 3- and 4-year-olds play - and learn - outside every day.
“The number one question immediately we get from parents is 'What happens if it rains?'" says school co-founder Jaclyn Jenkins. "And we say, 'Bring an extra pair of clothes!' We still educate them. They also get energy. Their brains are working, when they’re moving. So our goal is to always be outside.”
Classroom with no Walls
Teacher Alison Huff, who has worked with students at other schools, says they just have a more hands-on learning style here.
“When we were doing pumpkins, we incorporated counting. We’re incorporating opposites. They were explaining the colors. We’re teaching measurements, when we plant the seeds, we count 12 inches between every seed. We can use everything a regular preschool uses, but out in the garden.”
In addition to planting vegetables and fruits, kids help prepare food and clean their dishes afterward.
“We trying to incorporate cooking as much as possible so they can see the benefits of what they have in the garden and taste it then instead of going to the grocery store and buying it,” Huff says.
She adds that the preschoolers also pick up a bit of foreign language. “I speak English and Spanish. Our assistant speaks French and Arabic. So she’s incorporating that and I teach English and Spanish. And we have a 3-year-old that speaks four different languages.”
Learning from a Turkey
Farm animals are also an important part of the curriculum. Jenkins says every month, they focus on a different animal. A couple of months ago, that animal was a cow.
“We actually have a cow, we bring it to the school. They get to see what the cow is like. We learn what cows eat. We use little gloves and pretend they actually milk a cow. We make butter. We make yogurt.”
The kids spent another month with a turkey. “We learned about Wayland, the turkey. He’s funny. He’s so big. That sometimes is intimidating, yet kids go right to him and pet him. We talk about feathers, the difference between males and females, what they eat. They feed him.”
One Day Farm
The idea for a school like this grew organically, after Jaclyn and her husband Kenny bought this 5-hectare farm in Hamilton, Virginia, with a late 18th-century house on the property. They called it “One Day Farm,” because, as Kenny explains, they promised themselves that one day, we'd have a farm.
“Jac and I have been together since we were seniors in high school. We always said one day we’ll have an old house with a small farm. This was a goal, that once we reach retirement, we would find this farm. We were not looking to move, we were not looking to purchase a farm, it just popped up on the Internet. We came to look at this place and we didn’t want to leave."
They moved in, and their friends and family started to come visit. They wanted to see what garden farming was like. They wanted to see the animals. “That’s when it started, the spark of a farm school,” Jaclyn recalls.
The Jenkins see a need for this kind of open-space, hands-on learning.
“Watching where our society is today, where most kids are glued to their iPad or iPhone, and they learn that way,” Kenny Jenkins says. “They don’t learn with their hands anymore. They don’t get outside. Most preschools in the area, the kids are outside a total of maybe 15 minutes or 20 minutes during the whole day.”
Learning, playing and exploring
That emphasis on outdoor and hands-on education is what Courtney Williams wanted for her 3-year-old son, Ken. So she enrolled him in the school.
“For me, it’s the best of both worlds,” she says. “He’s learning to count, to color, all the things to keep him competitive in this education competition, but he gets to be a kid. He gets to jump in puddles. He gets to try to climb trees and run and roll down hills. He’s able to get experience of those things that because I work and because my husband works, we’re not able to give it at home. I grew up on 14-acres. I ran in the woods and played and really want that for my kids. This is a solution for that.”
Kids come home with new experiences, new knowledge and often, a basket full of vegetables.
“Not only does he bring what he’s learning home, he brings actual vegetables home, he brings home eggs,” Williams adds. “He pushes me out of the box, of what I learned to cook and try. And he wants to try all of it because he grew it.”
That’s the influence the Farm School wants to have, teaching the whole family and bringing the great outdoors back into the classroom.