Our flock has grown! This Spring Treehouse Learning welcomed 3 lovely feathered ladies into their new home (a custom-made coop down the back driveway). One is already laying eggs, and the other two pullets (or chickens under a year old) are now full-size, and we anticipate them beginning to lay eggs any day now.
After a collaborative and creative brainstorming session, participation in a democratic voting process, and the math experience of tally marks and counting, our Kindergarten and preschool children selected their names. Treehouse Learning proudly introduces:
Peanut (though we are a nut-free facility, we did make an exception for this one!)
Caring for Living Relatives
Our entire program is involved and abuzz in learning about chickens! Our toddlers talk about what chickens look and sound like, and how they need shelter, safety, food and water (just like us). We talk about how one chicken might be lonely, but the three of them together are like a family. In fact, inspired by Early Childhood Educators seeking to indigenize education, like Mike Browne and Nick Terrones of Napcast Podcast, when we use the language of chickens (or worms, weeds, or spiders) as living relatives, we harness the power of words to invite children into relationship with living things. When we imagine living systems as relatives, or in relationship to us, we invite children to care for living things the way we would also consider and care for a family member, and how we can also care for our ecosystems and planet.
The Chicken or the Egg…?
Across the program, we also collect children’s food scraps after meals and snacks, as well as food scraps in our staff room and in the kitchen during meal prep to either compost directly or offer to the chickens to eat. The older children collect egg()s, and make observations about the color, shape, and texture of the egg(s). The children share joy in the discovery of an egg in the nesting box, and pride in carefully bringing inside what they collect to present it to Mary and Ari, our Treehouse Learning cooks. The children also express gratitude, awe, and wonder for the miracle of egg production. They say “Thank you!” to the chicken for laying the egg for us to enjoy.
Our current pace of an egg every other day or so doesn’t stretch far enough to meaningfully incorporate home-grown eggs into the planned menu for a school of our size. However, all of our collected eggs are used and enjoyed! And, we are also working to build relationships with local farmers in order to have a local supply of fresh eggs for our program, as well as be able to recycle food scraps on a larger scale.
Regenerative Cycles and Chickens as Learning Opportunities
Caring for chickens, like all living things, offers an important context and understanding the regenerative cycles of life on planet Earth and the dynamic relationships between all living systems. Caring for chickens as a program serves our program mission of cultivating a planetary perspective through a whole brain, whole person, and whole planet perspective that connects human systems to all living systems. Chickens invite us into a relationship with land, time, and place, and we value children being shaped through immersion in these overlapping and interconnecting systems.
Plants convert sunshine into food via photosynthesis. Chickens eat plants, food scraps, and insects, and their scratching helps plant matter break down. Their droppings, along with the organic material lining the coop (straw and wood chips) break down and via the help of worms and other systems, will eventually be turned into soil that can in turn be used to grow more plants through harvesting the energy of the sun.
In this way, having chickens at Treehouse Learning invites our entire community into learning about science, living systems, food production, ecosystems, making healthy soil, and so much more! Chickens are a hands-on way to make connections with non-human living things around us, and our roles and responsibilities in being a custodial species for other living things. No textbook, worksheet, or technology-based learning module will ever invite the kind of relevant, meaningful, and joyful opportunity to engage with the world and learn valuable STEAM skills as directly caring for chickens!
The Joy and Delight of Chickens
Quite simply, chickens are fascinating and delightful to observe. Our children, even toddlers, look forward to daily outdoor walks, including a stop to visit our feathered friends. Each chicken has a temperament and personality. Children can identify emotions or feelings in chickens as well, like curiosity or fear, which help support their own emotional intelligence to notice and name feelings. While our chickens look similar in terms of size and shape, each chicken has unique coloring, features, feather patterns, and features. This invites children into conversations about sameness, difference, and making meaning of differences in a way that honors and celebrates diversity.
Caring for chickens supports empathy, perspective-taking, and respect for living things that we believe foster the creation of inclusion, belonging, and connection– all key ingredients in an anti-bias curriculum and our BIDES initiative. All living things- from chickens to the lowly worm to other human beings- are equally deserving of dignity, respect, and the right to live. Spending time observing chickens is an easy and organic way to joyfully connect with the living world around us in a way that we believe is positive for the planet.
Incorporating Chickens into Your Home Environment Too!
Many people behind the scenes make Treehouse Learning a great place to learn and grow, including our Maintenance & Facility Expert, Andres, who constructed our coop out of mostly repurposed materials and incorporated the structure into our existing environment. The coop is our back driveway, tucked behind a storage shed. Though Treehouse Learning wouldn’t have been able to welcome these chickens without Andres understanding, embodying, and executing our program values, quality chicken coops are fairly easy to find! Great coops can be purchased and assembled as kits without a huge amount of time or skill, designed and built custom according to space or needs, and there is also an ever-evolving market for repurposing coops, like on Craigslist.
While our chickens are not technically free-range or grass-fed, they have ample room to explore and move. We designed this setup within the parameters of our environment, including our physical location and the requirements of licensing and the health department. We keep feed in the metal bin, and ideally, food is suspended off of the ground. It is not our hope to inadvertently advertise for a convention of mice or other rodents to join the party.
One of our objectives in keeping chickens at Treehouse Learning is that the joy of caring for chickens will travel home with our children, and carry with them throughout their lives. Many families would love to keep backyard chickens. Our setup is a great example of how relatively straightforward this is to do. While some HOAs do prevent or restrict backyard chickens (especially roosters), city ordinances do still generally allow keeping backyard chickens.
The Circle of Life
The inevitable reality about caring for living things is that death is an eventual outcome. Our three hens are fully dependent on the safety of the environment we provide them. We are their custodians, charged with their care! An overhead roof offers protection from the elements as well as flying predators during the daytime. Hardware cloth is used to reinforce the coop to provide additional protection from night-time predators. The chickens also have a coop with an automatic door that closes at sunset and opens at dawn.
The reality is that while we can do our best to anticipate the risks and needs for our chicken’s safety, we can not protect them from everything. While we hope these chickens live long and thriving lives, there will eventually be a point where we will be required to make meaning of the loss of chicken life, an inevitable life lesson, and a valuable learning opportunity.
Years ago, when my family first explored having chickens on our homestead, we allowed young birds to free-range in a protected pasture and failed to provide adequate overhead protection. We lost one to a Red-Tailed Hawk, and I’ll never forget the wide-eyed and honest expression of our then-three-year-old child, stating matter-of-factly, “That was the end of the chicken! That chicken is no more.” While it is sad to lose a chicken, we have had many years and experiences to discuss and construct deeper meaning and purpose to cycles of life and death. For example, while we mourned the loss of chickens due to an attack on our property by a clever and persistent fox, we discussed how the slain chickens fed and sustained the family of nesting Bald Eagles nearby and learned about decomposition, or how the parts of the chicken went back into the ecosystem in many different ways.
You Can Keep Chickens Too!
We hope that our families and community would be inspired to learn and engage with chickens. Whether you decide to welcome a small flock where you live, or simply visit ours, we hope you notice the awe, wonder, and delight that young children experience in being in a relationship with other living things and living systems.
We invite our entire community into curiosity and connection with chickens and hope to support more and more people around us into direct involvement with the food and living systems around us. A great place to begin cultivating land and season-based relationships with the living world can begin with simple things like growing food in a container on your patio, hanging a birdfeeder in your backyard, or transforming dandelion greens. While keeping chickens is a bit more work, it is an eggcellent family-friendly learning experience. We wish you best of cluck!