Why We Do What We Do
Michaela Ryan founded New Village Farm (NVF) in 2008, with a vision to create a space where children and adults could experience organic connections with nature and farming. In the years since, NVF has become an educational farm, which strives to to empower children and families to learn new skills, to take on responsibility, to build community, and to explore freedom in the outdoors.
We believe that our relationship to the world is at the core of our wellbeing and our humanity. We contend the world around us is not separate from us. We trust building relationships with plants, animals, and people --through hands-on interaction-- can enhance our lives, our confidence, and our sense of belonging. We believe that all animals and people have value, and encourage them to express the fullness and uniqueness of their essential selves. We value the challenges of life unfolding; we seek to support each other in encountering conflict, death, grief, obstacles and stress with compassion and awareness.
Many learning environments are run with strictly enforced sets of rules, structured from the outside in, from the top down. We intentionally minimize rules, so that kids can begin to build a moral compass for themselves. We believe that childhood is an important time to be building values, not to just learn to follow rules. Instead of a rulebook, we use three primary guidelines: 1. Take care of yourself. 2. Take care of each other. 3. Take care of the place.
There are a few aspects of our programs that set us apart from other learning centers.
Work, responsibility, & risk:
We believe everyone has something to offer and contribute – at any age. We intentionally structure NVF, so that the kids participating in our programs are doing the real work of the farm, e.g., milking, feeding, watering, fencing, tending to the gardens, maintaining the infrastructure, etc. Chores and work projects are an opportunity for the kids to build skills and begin to recognize themselves as competent and capable. We have found that when children have true responsibility, they usually rise to meet the work. As kids grow, we continue to add responsibility to their plate. To be relied upon keeps people growing and engaged.
However, there is inherent risk associated with sending your child to a farm. We are a working farm with heavy machinery, animals, electric fences, ditches, etc. Children climb trees, jump on hay bales, chase each other around the forest, let animals jump onto their backs, cook over the fire, etc. During chores, especially, we also look to create many opportunities for them to support each other and achieve things without adult help. This involves inherent risks that parents should be aware of.
For example, we might send an eight year old to the chicken coop with two five year olds to collect afternoon eggs. We choose the parties carefully, but a number of things could happen: a rooster could perceive a threat and start to peck and scream, the eggs might be dropped and broken, a conflict might break out, and an argument might ensue, etc. We obviously weigh risks carefully, but ultimately believe there is no growth without risk. If any issue arises and the kids have a hard time working out the conflict between themselves, we step in, and help to build their toolkit around encountering conflict. However, in most cases the children return proud of their accomplishment and are a little more confident that they can manage themselves in the world and get things done. Over the years, we have been privileged to watch the kids take up the work, and grow their rootedness, their compassion, their strength and their ability to lead and work with others.
Our approach to conflict resolution is one that is restorative and not punitive. We focus on building relationships with a foundation of trust, so that when conflict arises we can lean into each other and understand our impact on the group. We make sure to listen to all sides of a disagreement, be curious about the root of the conflict and what it may be signifying, and give space when it's necessary. We may ask ourselves and the children the following questions in working through a conflict:
“What was going through your head when…?”
What was the intent? And what was the impact?
How can we encourage this child to think about their experience but from other points of view?
How can we be more inclusive? How can we out stretch a hand to those who are having a hard time finding footing? It's a lifelong pursuit!
Does the child need to be grounded by the presence of animals?
Does the child or group need space?
How do we want to move forward?
We make time for free, unstructured play three times (or more!) per typical camp or Farm School day. Studies show that unstructured play, meaning play without adults predetermining the rules or guidelines allows children the freedom to explore, create and discover their world. According to Help Me Grow Minnesota, free play has been shown to foster cognitive development while boosting physical development and social and emotional development. It specifically helps creativity and imagination, problem-solving abilities and social skills.
Free play also fosters creativity and imagination. Because there are no fixed rules to follow, children can make their own games and guidelines. This opportunity to create and use imagination is important to cognitive development.
Free play strengthens problem-solving abilities. Children work together during unstructured play to solve problems, like, for example, who takes the first turn in a game and establishing other rules of play. While activities should be supervised, allow children time to work together on problems before helping resolve a conflict or question.
Free play boosts social skills. Unstructured play encourages social skills and teamwork. Children take turns, learn to listen and share, develop imaginary scenarios and make decisions together. Because they are the ones driving play, they have the chance to learn on their own among friends. When conflict breaks out, which it often does, children have the opportunity to work it out. We staff are always there to help them, but we attempt to refrain from stepping in unless we deem intervention necessary, e.g., emotional or physical safety is at risk.
We balance free play with chores, farm projects, handwork projects, meals, and games.
In Farm School, handwork makes up a big part of our curriculum. Handwork is an activity, typically a craft, that makes use of repetitive movements to create a work of art. Examples of handwork we use is knitting, weaving, whittling, origami, friendship bracelets, etc. We routinely incorporate handwork for so many reasons. @peacewithnaturehandwork helps to put the incredible benefits of handwork into words. Handwork helps us to slow down; it builds self-confidence, refines fine motor skills; boosts creativity and resourcefulness; it helps to develop patience and perseverance.
According to Montessori handwork teacher, Carol Palmer, handork takes commitment, both to master and to complete a project. Children in modern society can become so used to quick-fixes and instant gratification that they can sometimes lose the ability or motivation to strive for longer term projects. Handwork takes commitment, perseverance and resilience. It teaches them that we can achieve great things, if we take them one step at a time. In our opinion, it builds resilience and offers a sense of achievement. Nothing beats the smile on a kid’s face when they finish a handwork project.
Additionally, from a biological perspective, through the use of repetitive movements, more serotonin is released compared to at a resting state. This serotonin can improve our moods and promotes a sense of calmness. The rhythm and flow of knitting or weaving are naturally cathartic and can be a gentle source of comfort to child or adult.
Carol Palmer states, “in a culture where children are becoming increasingly stressed and anxious it is more important than ever that we offer them an outlet for their tension. Handwork is therapeutic, it creates a space in time when the hands are engaged but the mind is free to process and unwind – it naturally slows down to meet the rhythm of the craft, and a more natural balance is restored.
On the Farm, we use many tools to accomplish our work. We try to implement a rough progression of tools, so kids can keep honing their fine motor skills before moving up in level.
We start with screwdrivers and shovels, then we move to hammers, to pitchforks, to saws, to drills, to knives.
Knives and Whittling
Whittling is an activity reserved for those 7 years and older. It requires supervision at all times by an adult. No one is an everyday whittler! Staff discern who is able and who is not able to whittle depending on body language, energy, and the child’s ability to become grounded.
Our whittling rules are as follows:
Blood Circle: kids are responsible for maintaining a safety circle by using their sheath and extending their arm out in all directions while seated to identify the area around them that is off-limits to others
Kids can find wood that is relatively soft, not too small, thin, or knobby
Kids never carve toward themselves
Knives that aren’t being whittled with must be sheathed
We do not allow gesturing or walking with unsheathed knives
When finished whittling, kids should put their sheathed knife back in the knife bag.
Kids will whittle sitting down, in their own space, and following any additional safety considerations that may arise in the moment.
Leaning into discomfort
NVF is a unique education center! We operate in an all-outdoors environment; we teach groups of kids with a relatively large age range; physical work is a part of our curriculum, and so on and so forth. Therefore, some kids need adjustment time to become more comfortable in our space.
We believe appropriate levels of discomfort are important to growth and resiliency, but starting small is important. For example, for a young 5 year old who is not used to consistently being in a large group of kids outside all day, a farm day could be exhausting. We often offer half days to help ease them into this transition. It is important for kids and their adults to be able to discern being uncomfortable and being unsafe. Sometimes, people conflate the two. We want to work through discomfort, not avoid it.
Death is a part of life on the farm. We do not hide death from children. Animals die here from natural causes, predation, and from slaughter for human consumption. At the farm, we meet death head on – of course, taking age into consideration. When an animal dies, we provide time and space for kids to discuss and process the event in whatever way they feel comfortable. Some may ask questions or want to see the animal, and others may need to keep it private. If some child wants to know more about the details of a death, we have those conversations but in a smaller, private group, where each child consents to learn more. No child is ever forced to take part in a conversation or burial.
We acknowledge the saying ‘where there is life, there is death.’ And we try to ground ourselves in gratitude in the honoring of another life.
Approach to Slaughter
Occasionally, we discuss slaughter with the kids (e.g., we’re going to ship a cow, we’re hosting an on-farm chicken slaughter, kids are curious, etc). We typically aren’t called to address it at summer camp, but when the topic arises, we answer questions honestly and we do our best to bring as much heart as we can to the topic. We are deeply conscious of the sacrifice we impose on these animals that we eat, and we are repeatedly called upon to revisit and re-analyse it.
During these conversations with the kids, we talk about how we approach slaughter from a place of gratitude rather than as an apology. We talk about how animals enrich our lives and continue to nourish us and the farm – even after death. We talk about meat consumption, and different valid ethical perspectives on the issue. We talk about how we raise cows as livestock, not pets, and where that choice gets messy for us. We talk about the animals’ positive impact on our land, and the limits of the 99 acres we have. We talk about how hard the decision can be to make the choice for an animal. We, as farmers, take the responsibility very seriously.
We also give the kids, who are interested in learning more of the gory details, an opportunity to ask any questions about the actual slaughter and butchering away from the rest of the group. We tell it straight to the kids – but only to the ones who want to know and whom we feel are ready.
The kids know what love, respect, and energy goes into raising these animals because they raise the animals alongside us.
What parents say about our programs
We like to send out feedback surveys at the end of our programs, so parents and kids can provide input on how to improve our programs. Respondents can also opt to share an anonymous testimonial. We have posted a few of them below:
"Our child is his best self on farm days. He comes home grounded, engaged, compassionate, bigger and more alive. He shares that joy easily with our family. Everything is better and brighter on 'Farm Days.'"
"New Village Farm fosters independence and purpose by allowing kids to engage on the farm at their own pace. The staff support kids as they learn to trust themselves in the world and gives them the confidence to discover who they are."
"We are so thankful for New Village Farm School and its beautifully profound impact on our family. Not only does Farm School break up the week of traditional learning with true experiential learning, it addresses each of our kids' varying needs in a safe and nurturing environment. For our oldest (9), the Farm helps her extend her comfort levels and build confidence. For our energetic middle (8), the Farm provides him with the hands-on learning and energy release he craves. And for our youngest (6), the Farm helps build on his sense of responsibility and community. Whether it's assisting with farm projects, witnessing baby goats enter the world, climbing trees, daily circles and chores, caring for animals, or even approaching and processing death/loss, the Farm meets our kids where they are at and provides a compassionate and emotionally safe space. Our kids leave Farm School with a renewed and expanded appreciation, thoughtfulness and connection to nature, themselves and their community overall. We feel so fortunate to have New Village Farm as part of our kids' education and life experience."
"New Village Farm teaches kids how to care for animals, the land and one another. When our child comes home after a day at the farm, everything in our house is more joyful. He is confident and compassionate – life skills he practices at the farm."
"Farm day is our daughter's favorite day of the week. The program has the right mix of hands-on learning and free play, and the staff are wonderfully caring and capable. She's so proud of the work she does for the farm and all of the practical skills and knowledge she has gained. Most of all, we love seeing how confident and emotionally grounded she has become during her time there. We feel so fortunate to be part of this community!"
"We initially stumbled into farm school due to Covid and it has such a profound positive impact on our son. NVF feels like our home away from home. The farm has instilled confidence, independence, and a deep love of the outdoors."
"Every day after camp, my son came home totally inspired, excited to tell me everything he had done at camp. I appreciate the building of physical stamina and will forces, and my child came home grounded. I knew he had been doing good, purposeful work."
"Our daughter's farm crew camp weeks exceeded her expectations and mine. I see her feeling comfortable in and pulled toward natural spaces and farm animals, and expressing openness, curiosity, respect, and affection for the farm, the animals, and the educators at NVF. It feels like home to her!"
"My child found such solace and joy participating in the community of NVF Farm Camp."
"My son struggles with a hidden disability as well as a neurodevelopmental disorder. You would never know this to look at him, but it greatly affects his self esteem and ability to form relationships with peers. NVF provides a safe space where is free to be himself, at any moment in time. When he is fully engaged and wants to take on more responsibility, they make arrangements to provide those opportunities. When he is less focused and wants to flutter from one activity to another, he is reminded to do so in a way that is safe to himself, other campers, and the animals. He forms deep connections with animals and that grounding affinity is nurtured, especially when he is struggling to process his emotions. NVF is a place of healing and growth, and our family will be forever grateful for the work you do. Thank you!"
Please direct any questions to email@example.com.