The provision of opportunities in Montessori schools to involve students in farm programs are not new. Indeed, for the vast majority of schools, this is integral to their education program. Maria Montessori wrote of the opportunities that working on the land give to young people, and described it as “an introduction both to nature and to civilisation, and giving a limitless field for scientific and historical studies” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 80).
With the benefits of a farm program undisputed, the challenge became deciding what the program would look like for us, and finding solutions to the logistical challenge of having limited land in a residential urban environment. Several individual teachers had attempted a small ‘urban farm’ on the campus with mixed results. A green house and planter boxes were used by a small group of students to grow herbs and vegetables, and these were in turn sold within our Microeconomy program. The school also made use of a local NFP ‘Children’s Farm’, and this provided a limited opportunity to experience ‘farm life’ through contact with animals and horticulture.
The feedback from staff and students is that they wanted a greater authentic experience – “an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience.” (From Childhood to Adolescence, p. 80). A new proposal where students would camp and work on a local farm were developed. Tim Dewar used a contact to gain access to a property on the outskirts of Melbourne, and the ‘Farm Experience’ concept was born.
The two high level goals were: to allow students to experience authentic farm life, and to provide a prepared environment for an enriched academic experience. “Jonno the Farmer” worked with us to develop a program on his property. The logistics of taking 34 ‘city kids’ to a farm and camping for a week were complex. Tents, cooking equipment, port-a-loos and access to fresh water needed to be sourced. Risk assessments and insurance for activities such as feeding and learning about animals, wood splitting, fencing, tree planting, fire mitigation and woodwork were completed and approved. Teachers completed safety training on using equipment, and a program was developed.
The exciting part from the teacher’s perspective was the development of educational opportunities in the prepared farm environment. Students completed three main activities around Maths, Science and Humanities. The Maths program involved students putting on the gumboots and completing a seismic investigation of the creek to enable an examination of volume and rate of water flow. Our Science teacher lead an experiment where they examined different burning rates and reactions of substances using the campfire. Our Humanities teacher really came out of left field, leading some interpretive dance as a way of looking at river processes and landform. Lesson plans for future excursions have been developed, with the farm living up to expectations as a rich source of educational opportunities.
Overall, we were happy with our first Farm Experience. We travelled to a local indoor aquatic centre every second day to use their showers and have some fun group activities with the students, and this ‘return to humanity’ was well received. Student reflections showed that they enjoyed the Farm Experience and were challenged in a range of areas. The challenge for the future is securing a continuing relationship with the farm which will enable long-term activities such as raising our own animals, or planting and harvesting fruit trees and crops. Whilst Maria Montessori talked about the farm being ideally a boarding school model, the academic, social and emotional outcomes of our week-long Farm Experience for our students have ensured a regular place in our school calendar.