The children and the chickens
A story that Marina O’Connell still remembers very fondly from her time working as an organic horticulturalist at Dartington Hall is the one about the children and the chickens. Every day the preschoolers would delight the group of chickens kept at the garden with their leftovers from lunch. After some months when the chickens saw the children snaking across the field, they knew they were in for a treat. They would start flapping and squawking and the children for their part also got excited, happy that the chickens recognised them and snickering about their eagerness to catch the best bits. Once on a rainy day the chickens were penned in the field tidying up after a crop only enclosed with a flimsy electric fence, which wasn’t even turned on when the children arrived. Greeting each other, the chickens flapped towards them, the children leaned over the fence and the chickens were already out! Suddenly chickens and children were all over the place, their cackling and giggling accompanying this hilarious, wild and muddy medley. Observations like these made Marina realise how much children can benefit from a relationship not only with animals – and as it seems with chickens in particular – but also with plants. She later noticed how sowing seeds, digging up potatoes and picking strawberries sparks off delighted excitement in them, leading to increased motivation, a boost in self-confidence and the improvement of their coordination and dexterity.
Care Farming at the Apricot Centre
Inspired by these early experiences Marina, together with her husband Mark, who’s a Child Psychotherapist and Process Oriented Psychologist, developed unique programmes for children of all ages, inviting them to their 4 acres farm to introduce them to food growing, preparing and preserving fresh produce and sharing meals together. Over the years they have worked with children and teenagers from 20 different schools, some of which are from the most deprived areas in Essex and from specialist schools for autism. Marina and Mark’s aim is to design these visits as flexible as possible in order to be able to respond to children’s feedback, adapting the programme to their interests and needs at the time. However, the experience shall be as sensory as possible, seeing, touching, smelling, hearing and tasting what the site has to offer at any particular time of the year. Activities include: all aspects of gardening, building dens, creating wildlife habitats such as bug hotels, making art from natural materials found on site, teaching related science such as plant life-cycles, pollination and composting, play pretend selling produce at a market stall and pressing fresh apple juice. During the 14 years they already work with children on the farm they observed that children form new relationships with plants, animals and food, which in the long term can lead to a healthier diet, a broader palette of skills and a greater sense of well-being. Furthermore, these activities seem to have a therapeutic effect on children who have experienced trauma and it is Marina and Mark’s aim to explore these effects further. They say: “Just as children “attach” to a parent, we believe that children “attach” to nature (or chickens) and given the opportunity, this connection forms the basis for a greater respect for place and nature, which in the long term could contribute towards them living a more sustainable lifestyle.”
When Marina and Mark started their work with children this was still new territory and little to no knowledge existed, at least in mainstream perception, as to the possible effects or benefits of working with children in nature. However, the last few years have seen an increased interest in scientific evaluations of what has now become known as “care farming” and “green exercise”. Interestingly it was the nearby University of Essex that pioneered in researching some of these concepts. In their 2008 report “Care farming in the UK: Evidence and Opportunities” the researchers found that 64% of participants experienced a notable improvement in self-esteem and the statistics showed that the experience not only significantly enhances mood, activity and energy levels but also reduces feelings of anger, confusion, depression, tension and fatigue. “Evidence from both Europe and the UK has demonstrated that care farming is a win-win situation for farmers and rural communities, allowing the farm to stay economically viable, the farmer to continue in agriculture and a chance to provide a health, social rehabilitation or education service for the wider society. Care farming represents an example of multifunctional agriculture and offers a way to recognise the variety of different public goods and services our farms provide rather than simply focusing on food production, thus deriving extra value from the land.”
In 2010 the RSPB’s report “Every Child Outdoors” found that some of the key benefits of children’s contact with nature are: 1) Learning outdoors and first-hand experiences make subjects such as science more interesting and enhance pupils’ understanding of them. 2) Being outdoors increases physical activity levels counteracting obesity and children with ADHD seem to greatly benefit from their contact with nature. 3) It boosts children’s confidence, develops a more positive self-image and dealing with uncertainty helps to face the wider world and enhances social skills. In their 2013 follow-up study they looked at children’s connection to nature in the UK. Based on previous research they chose four descriptions of children’s feelings towards nature, which they used as parameters to define what they mean by ‘connecting to nature’. They are: enjoyment of nature, empathy for creatures, sense of oneness and a sense of responsibility. They conclude that: “The effects of disconnection may include lower achievement at school, poorer mental and physical health, or under-developed social skills.” On the other hand, “if children are connected with nature, they are more likely to be interested in their environment and in taking part in nature-based activities. In other words, by connecting children with nature, they will enjoy it and want to save it – now and in the future.”
These studies confirm what years ago Marina and Mark felt intuitively and the research backs up their and the children’s positive experiences they had over the years. Yet, farming, experiencing nature and animals does not only have positive effects on the individual but being with animals in particular can have lasting effects on the society as a whole in regards to how we view and treat each other. An article in the New Scientist (Dec 2012) called ‘The human cost of devaluing animals’ details a study that found that ‘how we treat animals directly affects how we treat each other’ and that children who have positive views on animals, that is they see humans and animals more equal rather than humans superior to animals, are less likely to develop racial prejudices and are less likely to later engage in dehumanising practices such as discrimination and torture. Shouldn’t this fascinating research encourage us to bring more children and chickens together, not only for the instantaneous fun but to enhance our social skills long-term?
A vision for the future
It is the Apricot Centre’s vision to take this important work to a new level. They are currently based in Manningtree, Essex but have been offered to steward a 36 acres site in Totnes, Devon. Through the purchase of the land at Week they could expand their offer of care farming, set up an educational market garden and small holding to grow biodynamic produce. Through this new project they could invite more children, schools, families, individuals with learning difficulties and disabilities to the farm to experience a connection with nature: to feed chickens, to see cows jumping in the meadows, to hear the wind rustling through the trees, to have a ladybug crawl along your finger, to weave with willows, to get your hands muddy, to pick fresh fruit and veg and to see how they can be prepared into deliciously fresh meals that can be shared with others.
If you would like to become part in realising this vision please donate or buy shares. All contributions, small and large, are very welcome! The Week Farm co-op buyout offers people the opportunity to invest in a local, organic farming future, children’s wellbeing, health, food security, soil fertility, biodiversity and a living, working countryside. Just as Fordhall Farm, Market Drayton in Shropshire was saved in 2006 when 8000 people invested £800,000, so Week Farm can be secured into co-op trusteeship for the Apricot Centre if many people give or invest.