Every day at the new Little Wings Farm School in Greenfield, young students must complete their farm chores.
“My farmers have to get the eggs,” Aaren Harris, the school’s lead teacher and founder, told her class of 3- and 4-year-olds Wednesday morning.
The children, who had just spent time watering lettuce seedlings and picking vegetables inside a greenhouse, ran past the compost pile on their way to the chicken coop. The kids — there are five of them in the class as Harris slowly grows her new preschool program — were seemingly fearless as they climbed into the chicken coop and reached directly under a hen to check for new eggs. The hen didn’t seem to mind.
“I got an egg from her,” 4-year-old Ruth Parwana told Harris as she stepped back into the sun, clutching a small basket of fresh eggs.
“How many did we get?” Harris asked. “Can you count with me?”
“One … two … three … four,” Ruth said as she slowly pointed to each of the eggs in her basket.
A few steps away from the chicken coop, the kids played on a camelback-shaped pile of wood chips — dubbed Chip Mountain — as Harris explained how the chips could be used as mulch or compost material. The young students bounded from one hump of the mound to another, or rested in large divots and pretended to be eggs.
“I’m an egg,” Ruth said. (Later, in the woodland classroom, the kids pretended to be dinosaur eggs — variations on a theme.)
“I’m a chicken,” 3-year-old Calder Miles said.
On many school playgrounds, wood chips serve as a soft base for kids to safely enjoy monkey bars, slides and swings; at Little Wings, along with sections of woods and open fields, the chips are the playground.
“They have been enjoying this almost as a climbing apparatus,” Harris said.
As they played on Chip Mountain — the school day is a constant stream of planned activities, free play and ad-hoc lessons — one of the children spotted a caterpillar on the ground. A quick lesson ensued.
“It’s our first woolly bear of the fall,” Harris said as she explained to the kids how to handle what looked like a darkly colored and oddly shaped cottonball. “Gentle touching.”
The students took turns letting the caterpillar crawl across their hands and then onto a classmate’s hand. They observed how it felt to touch the caterpillar and how the caterpillar responded to their presence.
“He pooped on Calder,” said 4-year-old Milo Lamb.
“He tickled on my hand,” 4-year-old Mikayla Briscoe said.
The chores, like those on any farm, change with the seasons. And so do the lessons. Lessons about late-summer flowers are followed by lessons about changing leaves and autumn. Soon, students will learn about animal migration and hibernation. The class spent the week on a series of butterfly activities, including watching as caterpillars they found in milkweed plants transformed into a chrysalis, one step closer to becoming butterflies. The children can read about butterflies, learn about butterflies, create art of butterflies and soak in the workaday lives of the butterflies in their midst.
“They can also see them fly from flower to flower,” Harris said.
More outside than in
Harris, who has lived with her family on the 20-acre Greenfield farm for 14 years, opened the Little Wings school this fall, the realization of a yearslong dream to offer young students a chance to learn in and around nature and the day-to-day life of a working farm. She said she is still enrolling families in the program, which costs $500 a month. Harris can also accept child care vouchers.
She started the new program with about a half dozen kids — ages 3 and 4 attending a morning program that runs from 9 to 11:30 a.m. — and plans to expand to an afternoon class session and a short summer camp.
A longtime hiker and outdoors enthusiast, Harris has completed all three of the country’s major long-distance trails — the Appalachian, the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide — and has nearly completed the 740-mile-long Northern Forest Canoe Trail over multiple summer trips with her family.
She plans to infuse outdoor safety lessons into her daily activities with kids, emphasizing the importance of proper clothing and gear, and teaching kids about how to enjoy outdoor recreation safely. During the winter, she plans to snowshoe the trails around her farm with the preschoolers.
Time outside has been the default so far this year, and Harris said she hopes to spend at least a few minutes outside every day that windchill levels remain above 14 degrees. She has already explained to parents about layering different types of clothes during the winter and ensuring that students have adequate footwear and gloves.
“We can go inside whenever we want,” she said, noting that she has a classroom set up inside the white farmhouse. “We have been choosing not to.”
By the end of September, the class had only been inside once, she said, spending most of their days exploring the farm and woods. On Wednesday, temperatures hovered just above 50 degrees when students were dropped off by their parents; they spent the entire morning outside.
“It’s taking kids some time to get used to that — time outside,” she said. “They are getting used to more time outside than in.”
Harris set up about a half dozen “classrooms” spread across the property. The class started its day in a gated garden space directly off the house. The space includes a trio of child-sized picnic tables and a recycled coffee table used for shared crafts space.
After some playtime in the garden space, Harris and the students went to an area set up underneath a large stand of evergreens in the front of the farmhouse. Ducking underneath low-hanging branches, the students took their seats on benches set up in a square. Dappled light breaking through the branches offered some spots of warmth. Harris led the class through a standard preschool morning circle, discussing the day’s date, previewing activities and singing songs about letters and numbers.
“I call it troll forest,” Harris said of the spot underneath the evergreens.
The students get Spanish lessons once a month. They visit another farm on monthly field trips, recently visiting Saratoga Apple orchard to learn about how apple cider and cider donuts are made.
Harris, who worked the farm full time for three years before starting to work as an educator, studied early childhood education at The College of Saint Rose and worked in local Head Start programs in Saratoga County. She said she contracted COVID-19 last year while working at one of the preschool programs, and decided to quit and work full time on establishing her farm-based preschool program.
She’s certified as a classroom teacher for students from birth to second grade and her home-based program is licensed as a group family daycare, which enables daycare programs to be run from a home. With an assistant teacher on hand, she can have up to 12 students in a class.
Makenzie Eagan, who grew up in Ballston Lake and recently graduated from SUNY Cortland with a degree in early childhood development, said she had hoped to find a school where she could merge her outdoor interests with her passion for teaching when she saw a job posting for an assistant teacher at Little Wings. She said the time outside is constantly enriching for students as they explore and learn from everything they stumble across.
“I’ve been looking for a place like this, an outdoor school, and they are so hard to come by,” she said. “I don’t even dread going into work. I love it.”
Inside the greenhouse students took turns watering fledgling seedlings of cold-hardy greens.
“Can I have a turn?” one of the young students asked as they all took a turn with the watering can.
Harris said she started the seeds shortly before the students arrived but that they will be starting many of their own seeds in the spring. She tries to give the children time in the greenhouse so they can experience how their food grows. They recently helped pick dozens of mini butternut squashes.
“There’s a buzzing energy inside a greenhouse with growing plants,” Harris said. “I’ll let them be in here as much as possible.”
Each stage of plant development — just like the constantly changing weather and ebbs of the seasons — offers a new hook to a new lesson. And the kids have the chance to touch, feel and smell each step of the process.
“It’s a living curriculum,” Harris said. “They are experiencing it firsthand.”
For more photos of a day in the life at Little Wings Farm School: https://dailygazette.com/2021/10/03/images-little-wings-farm-school-in-greenfield
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Categories: Saratoga County