The city of Dayton, Ohio—like many US cities—has been hit hard by the recession and the national loss of manufacturing jobs. And the economic changes have not just taken a toll on the city’s working adults: Some 40% of preschoolers in the Dayton area do not attend preschool, and 75% of high-needs children are unprepared for kindergarten.
It’s no wonder, then, that Dayton’s Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm has made a commitment to its community, and in particular, to its children. Aullwood operates both a nature center and a working farm, where visitors can stroll through prairies and woodlands, explore wetlands and ponds, or sit by a stream. The Aullwood farm, which has made a commitment to sustainability in its farming practices, includes a Farm Discovery Center, a farm yard, pastures, barns, spring house, gardens, chicken coop, an orchard, and a sugar maple forest with a sugar house.
Charity Krueger, Aullwood’s Executive Director, says that Aullwood’s staff and board looked at all the resources their center had to offer children and families in their community, and asked “How can we create a really unique collaboration that will make our community stand up and take notice?” Knowing that Head Start served children who need early educational opportunities the most, Aullwood approached the Miami Valley Child Development Centers (MVCDC)—the operator of Head Start programs in the area—about creating a ground-breaking partnership to bring a Head Start classroom to a working farm.
Creating a True Collaboration
Great partnerships require a common vision, and each partner must bring their own skills and resources to the collaboration. In this case, the most critical piece of the collaboration was in the shared vision that a working farm can be used not just to raise plants and animals, but also to bring up children. Krueger explains that, from the beginning, both partners agreed that “the children should be outside every day on what would be their farm.”
In building the relationship, Aullwood agreed to provide the classroom space and rent the space to MVCDC, provide access to the farm, and provide naturalists and farmers who could work with the children. The Head Start operator would hire the teachers and administer the program. Two years later, the partnership is as strong as ever.
Krueger credits the teachers in the classroom with the program’s success. “We need to have the right preschool leader, so we worked with MVCDC to place the right person in the position. We’ve been blessed to have good teachers who are there because of their philosophies on the value of nature experiences and farm play.” The classroom’s Lead Teacher, Megan Miller, agrees. “The other teachers and I definitely have a love of being outside, and that requirement was specific in the job description when we applied for the job. We knew what it would entail, and we shared that vision.”
A Day in the Life of a Farm Preschool
As far as these partners are aware, the Head Start class at Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm is unlike any other Head Start classroom in the nation. Of course, the program meets the requirements of Head Start programs, such as providing meals to the children, setting aside time for brushing teeth, and following a curriculum (in this case, the High Scope curriculum that’s used by many Head Start programs).
But unlike other Head Start programs, children at Aullwood also spend time outdoors on the farm every day. They go on nature walks with their teachers, tend the gardens, and spend time with Aullwood naturalists who help the children explore their interests outdoors. The children help Aullwood’s farmer with farm chores such as feeding animals and gathering eggs, and the children gather water from the rain barrels and help water the gardens. In the process, they learn valuable skills that help prepare them for kindergarten, and life beyond the classroom.
The approach does take some getting used to for children and their parents. “Some of the children that come to us haven’t been around big livestock before,” Miller explains. Feeding an animal that’s many times your size can take some getting used to. Parents have to adjust, too. Miller says that while they do explain to parents at the beginning of the year that their children will be participating in farm life (and there’s a detailed permission slip that parents must sign), parents are often surprised by how dirty farm work can be.
She says at the beginning of the year, parents often ask, “Why are they getting dirty all the time?” She says that the teachers have to reinforce how important it is to come prepared for school on the farm by wearing old clothes, mud boots, snow boots, or whatever the weather and activities demand. “Some parents need a little more convincing, but they all get on board as they see the results.”
A Family Affair
Parents aren’t just involved by dressing their children for success on a farm. Krueger explains that one of Aullwood’s goals for the program is to invite the preschool families to take advantage of the center and farm as a family. Families might come out after school or on weekends for picnics, wagon rides, nature walks, festivals and more.
Krueger remembers one preschooler, in particular, who became especially attached to the farm. After the child graduated from the program and moved on to kindergarten, his mother would bring him back to the farm on Sundays so he could continue to help the farmer Bill with farm chores. His mom appreciated that her son had found a positive role model, and wanted to keep that special relationship alive.
A Model for Other Programs
By all accounts, the Aullwood experiment is working. “It’s really been a dynamic program,” explains Krueger. While Aullwood’s aim was not to make money from the program, they have succeeded in their goal of serving children in their community who need high-quality early childhood education the most. And they’re providing rich, nature-based experiences that maximize the farm’s educational potential.
Miller agrees that the partnership is a success and that it could serve as a model for other programs. “Instead of learning about farm animals in a book, the children can experience these things first hand.” It’s a far cry from the urban settings where she worked previously.
But Krueger acknowledges that there are risks to environmental education centers who partner with outside agencies such as Head Start. Centers that operate their own independent schools can set their own curriculum, and make it exactly what they want. Partnering with another organization does require giving up some of that ownership. “We may not reach the nirvana that [other nature preschools] may have, but we’re providing an exceptional opportunity for the children outdoors.”
And, Krueger says, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Aullwood was not, and is not today, prepared to take on the challenges of licensing, curriculum development, staffing, and more that are required for operating a high-quality preschool program. “To us, the only way to do this was to have a strong partner.”
And, as the program begins its third year, and the children prepare for the apple harvest and coming winter, it appears that the partnership will continue to grow, helping the Dayton community ensure that its children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten, and ready to earn when they graduate from school as young adults.