In July of 2012, I brought home four “rescue” chickens from my coworkers in Berkeley who were no longer able to provide the “free range” experience they envisioned for their hens. My husband and I gladly repurposed an empty shed to create a makeshift coop. A few years later, we built a more permanent structure and doubled our flock size with the addition of chicks. It was great fun…for about a decade. After we had experienced losses and the hens were no longer laying, our chicken-keeping career ended.
Several school gardens in Napa have had chickens over the years. Napa Valley Language Academy (NVLA) was once home to hens who laid an average of two dozen eggs per week. These organic eggs are sold to families for a reasonable price, which covered the cost of chicken feed. Prior to the pandemic, they aspired to expand their egg business to raise chicks and sell pullets to families. Done carefully, these activities can provide a sustainable source of funding for a school garden and teach about organic agriculture at the same time.
Garden Educator and Chief Chicken Whisperer, Marisol Angel, shared her opinion on keeping chickens in the school garden. She believes chickens make a great addition to the school garden because they connect kids with their food. She adds, “it’s also another way to compost food waste.” As a Latina, she acknowledges that chickens may be more culturally familiar to kids than household pets. Raising chickens can reduce fear of animals and teach responsibility. Despite the many benefits, Marisol cautions that chickens take work. She suggests you “have a system for them” and cites some important factors, such as automatic doors that close at night and open in the morning to keep chickens safe.
As much as I enjoyed having backyard chickens, there are some very real considerations to keep in mind before bringing chickens to school. Perhaps the greatest challenge is the presence of rodents. Unless food sources are very kept secure, rats are inevitable. Where there’s food, there will be offspring and before long, they may move in to the coop and create an unhealthy environment for the hens.
Nonetheless, Nathan Larson contends, “children can form some strong emotional bonds with chickens,” so they may be worth the trouble. (That said, he writes from and about gardens in Wisconsin, where freezing temperatures may curb some of the most prevalent issues.)
I’ve not yet learned to keep bees, but I still hope to. I was inspired to read about the junior beekeeping project at the Goodman Youth Farm. I always loved teaching young gardeners to observe bees as part of curricular units on pollinator study. Just like manure for compost, pollinators provide important ecosystem services that make a school garden more sustainable.
Although my favorite indoor classroom organism is snails, no school garden program is complete without worms! Worm bins are simple to set up and easy to maintain. In a school or district that prohibits chickens, worms are a great alternative to teach about nutrient cycling. A pound of red wigglers can eat half their weight in food scraps daily and their castings are highly useful in the garden.
In Teaching in Nature’s Classroom, Larson highlights the many animals that fascinate kids in a garden setting. While worms, bees, chickens may be the most intriguing, many kids are eager to interact with most bugs, birds, and reptiles. Early exposure to such organisms can build empathy for living things and teach about life cycles, ecosystem dynamics, and predator/prey relationships. Check out the posts below for more ideas for chickens, worms, and bees and more!