Connecting with Animals - A Visit to Follyfoot Farm Educational Children's Service
This week I visited a service on the Central Coast of NSW called Follyfoot Farm Educational Children’s Service. As the name suggests, upon the grounds of the service is a farm, and we’re not just talking a few chickens here. This is an actual farm with cows, lambs, chickens, guinea pigs and even a pig named Wilmer. I, myself was raised around animals and even learnt to ride horses at a school called - wait for it - Follyfoot Farm. So needless to say I felt a certain affinity with this centre even before I visited. But I could never have predicted just how incredible this environment would be. Here, a passionate team of educators have come together to create a service environment that emphasises values of respect, kindness, empathy and connection. The myriad of benefits the children attending the service experience is obvious as you walk around and take it all in.
So how does it all work? There is an educator with a background working in zoos and she often sources out baby animals which need caring for. These animals are brought to the service farm and raised by the educators and children until they are big enough to move on to large farm in the mid north coast. In addition to the farm yard which all the children visit throughout the day, each room has their own small pets, be it a guinea pig, a rabbit or some fish. The children feed the animals (including nursing baby lambs with bottles) and help look after their habitats. It is considered important that all children are provided the opportunity to participate in the care of the service animals and the platform this provides for developing their social awareness is limitless.
I was able to observe the children as they interacted with the animals and one of the most wonderful things I noticed was that as the children approached any given enclosure, the animals would come up to them - essentially lining up for some attention. This showed the relationship the animals had with the children. There was an element of trust on both sides of the fence. I watched as a four year old girl gently picked up a guinea pig in her hand and softly stroked its fur as she fed it. The level of respect was evident. Respectful relationships play a big role in the EYLF (2009) and NQS (2018), but we often forget that our relationships are not limited to other human beings. Animals are so dependent on us and need our care for survival. The children of Follyfoot Farm clearly respect these needs and understand the importance of their role in the animals life.
Outcome two of the EYLF (DEEWR, p.25) requires us to ensure ‘children are connected with and contribute to their world’. One of the elements involved in this outcome is that children are socially responsible and show respect for the environment. Director, Michelle Bakker, recognises “It’s not just about caring for the animals, but caring for their habitats also”. The children of Follyfoot Farm help to maintain the animals homes and enclosures, and as they do so they are learning about the impact human activity has on the natural world. This is an important value to embed in young children, it is the crux of sustainability. Sustainable living and connectedness with the natural world are not just values emphasised in the national curriculum, but also in the National Quality Standard (2017). Element 3.2.3 (ACECQA, p. 202) requires early childhood services to ensure children become environmentally responsible. What better way to impart such a value than caring for animals and the spaces within which they live?
The responsibility which is placed on the children to help care for and maintain the animals and their environments, allows the children to develop a sense of autonomy. They are learning skills which promote independence. This expectation also encourages a sense of ownership over the service community which builds confidence and belonging to the environment. The children at Follyfoot Farm move around their spaces with self assurance and ease.
Finally, there is something to be said for the non-judgemental nature of animals. Children in Finland are taught to read by reading to cows. Why? Because animals don’t care when you make a mistake. Animals don’t judge. They provide an audience for the child which is completely safe, allowing the child to try new things with confidence. And we all know confidence is key to learning.
It becomes clear that offering the opportunity for children to care for animals on a daily basis has many benefits to learning and development, particularly in relation to social skills. It is no surprise that many of the educators at this service boast several years of experience there. Or that their passion for early childhood education is great. When you can see so clearly the benefits of your work with children in the formative years, passion is easy to maintain. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Follyfoot Farm in action - I think I may move in! And if you’re on the Central Coast NSW, I highly recommend having a look!
DEEWR, (2009). Early Years Learning Framework: Belonging, Being and Becoming. Commonwealth of Australia: Canberra
ACECQA, (2017). Guide to the National Quality Framework. ACECQA: Sydney