The 12 preschoolers were perched on a step overlooking their playground, wriggling with anticipation. Lunch and naptime were over and the highlight of the day had arrived at last.
They were each going to spend time with their child-care center’s newest addition — a chicken named Graham Cracker.
Teacher Grace Theisen squatted in front of her young charges, who attend Kinderberry Hill in Roseville. She held the bantam hen securely as each child stepped forward and extended an index finger to gently pet her head.
“Thank you for being gentle. Who knows what we get from chickens?” Theisen asked.
“Eggs!” the children chorused.
“What else can you get from a chicken?” Theisen prodded, and was met with blank stares.
“Chicken?” a boy asked cautiously. “Like McNuggets?
“Yes!” Theisen replied, leading the children to murmur with worry.
“I won’t eat Graham Cracker!” a girl declared.
“No, of course not. She is our pet,” Theisen said.
“Who can pick two blades of grass to put in Graham Cracker’s coop?”
Giving young children hands-on lessons about where their food comes from is becoming ever more common. Each of the seven Kinderberry Hill centers in the Twin Cities includes a garden where children help as soon as they can toddle to it, planting, picking and snacking on tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and other fresh produce.
“We hear about kids who don’t eat vegetables at home, but eat them here,” said Kinderberry Hill director Anne Roy. “Before they can get the idea that vegetables are yucky, they think they’re delicious because they grew them.”
Now the child care chain is beta testing the addition of chickens, augmenting its outdoor curriculum with regular hen parties.
“The children love to watch them pecking. Yesterday Graham Cracker found a worm and they were so excited,” said Roy.
Learning is embedded in the outdoor fun. Efforts in the garden teach children rudimentary science about how plants grow and begin building their knowledge about how their food choices affect the environment and their own bodies.
“Young children love purposeful work, activities that are useful and make a difference. They are experiential learners, so growing fruits and vegetables or taking care of animals creates a sense of competency and builds their empathy,” said Prof. Teresa Ripple, program director of early childhood and Montessori education programs at St. Catherine University.
Recent surveys have sounded the alarm that contemporary children spend less far time outdoors than did previous generations. Home gardens have become less common, making the living laboratories at school all the more important.
“Parents want their children to understand stewardship of the Earth, but families are busy and gardening is time-intensive. They’re glad when their kids participate in these activities at school,” Ripple added.
Children attending the Dodge Nature Center Preschool spend chunks of their summer days helping in garden plots on the playground and tending chickens that live on the West St. Paul school’s outdoor classroom.
“Gardening is such a natural thing to do with children. There’s quite a bit of documentation that attitudes about respecting nature and the outdoors are formed in young years,” said preschool director Marty Watson, lamenting that few of today’s city and suburban preschoolers have the opportunity to experience the natural world as she did.
“I’m an old farm kid. I grew up in South Dakota, where we took a lot of pride in the work of growing food. We had responsibility and that makes the world bigger than just you. Young people don’t have that connection anymore,” Watson said.
In fact, the American Farm Bureau Federation finds that the average American is now three generations removed from the farm. Today, farm and ranch families make up less than 2 percent of the population, so children are less likely to spend time with grandparents or other relatives who work the land.
At the same time, a movement to incorporate agriculture into the K-12 classroom has taken root in Minnesota. According to a 2015 survey by the USDA, there were 198 school gardens growing in Minnesota.
Minnesota’s Agriculture Department provides teachers with a range of educational materials through its Agriculture in the Classroom program, which offers lesson plans that teach science, math, social studies and nutrition concepts through agriculture.
“Teachers are asking for tools themselves; they’re removed from farming, as well,” said Sue Knott, an education specialist with the program. “We know working in a small garden is not the same as farming hundreds of acres, but it lets children see decisions that have to be made — about budgeting, managing pests, the weather. That gets those curious minds going.”
Preschoolers at Kinderberry Hill are still waiting for one of their hens to lay an egg.
In the meantime, they’re learning another practical lesson about caring for chickens: They’re talking about germs.
After each class completes its time at the coop, the children are hustled to the hand-washing sink.
“Remember how Graham Cracker takes a dust bath?” said Theisen.
“What makes her clean makes you dirty!”
Keyvn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.