Students these days are busy—some may even say too busy. In addition to homework, sports, clubs, and tutors, there’s TV, video games, texting, and other electronic distractions. That’s what makes incorporating animals into school environments so special. Encouraging an unplugged, hands-on approach to learning creates a multitude of opportunities to see lesson plans come to life.
Oscar Mayer Magnet School in Chicago’s lincoln Park neighborhood was one of the first Chicago schools to build an on-campus chicken coop. The school’s experience illustrates just how greatly students benefit from interacting with animal communities.
Six years ago, Anastasia Hinchsliff, with her green thumb and passion for urban gardens, co-created a parent-run garden project. Fourteen teachers signed on to introduce their students to the joys of digging in the dirt. The kids started seeds, created worm bins, tilled their plots, and planted everything from tomatoes to beans to kale.
The goal of that first garden was to get students interested in where food comes from, teach them about hard-working pollinators, and create awareness about our environment. Today, Mayer is home to beautiful and prosperous gardens, two honeybee hives, a robust composting program, and a chicken coop. Given the multitude of learning opportunities they present—from science to math to writing—the “outdoor classrooms” are a favorite destination throughout the year.
The idea of welcoming chickens to Mayer came from a group of ambitious parent-volunteers who believed they could go a step further in creating teachable moments for the kids. With the help of local businesses such as The Hideout (which donated $10,000 to get the coop started) as well as Whole Foods, FoodCorps, and some generous parents, a solar-powered chicken coop was built with reclaimed wood and a rain barrel in a secured, fenced-off area in front of the school.
last year, six baby chicks arrived as the school’s youngest students. The two Buff Orpingtons, two Plymouth Rocks, and two Ameraucanas were chosen for their reputation as hardy birds who can survive brutal winters and who continue to lay eggs when it’s cold outside. They are also known for being docile around kids. The school community celebrated its feathered friends with a chicken pep rally and a spontaneous celebration of the first egg ever laid on campus.
The response to the chickens has been overwhelming. “Seeing them up close is amazing. Doing science outside with the chickens makes it much more interesting. I used to think chickens only lived on farms,” says sixth-grader Olivia Gork.
The chickens receive top-notch medical care from Oscar Mayer parent and veterinarian Dr. Lynn Lewin, and tons of love and attention from the community. More than 50 families and neighbors have attended “Chicken Training 101” sessions to help take care of the coop. Job perk: Volunteers get to take home the eggs they find during their shift!
“Chickens are showing up in other Chicago-area schools too. The Academy for Global Citizenship, a charter school on the Southwest Side, believes that its schoolyard garden and chickens have created opportunities for children to discover fresh organic food, become better stewards of the earth, and develop the self- confidence, discipline, and skills to collaborate with others both locally and globally.
The trend is taking off outside of Chicago too. Andrew Blake, founder of advocacy group Nap Town Chickens, has a goal to put a chicken coop in every school in Indianapolis. “I want to help kids think about where food comes from, what goes into producing it, and how not to waste it,” Blake says. Before the organization’s Project Poultry campaign, only one school in the area had a coop. Now, about 25 schools have coops, with more in discussions.
The draw to raise chickens in an urban environment—whether on school grounds or in backyards—goes beyond the desire for eggs. According to the round lake Chapter of the Chicago land urban Chicken Keepers (CluCK), there are plenty of benefits to raising chickens, such as “helping in the global effort to protect heritage-breed and endangered varieties of hens, reducing (or eliminating) the need for herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers, and the health benefit from more nutritious and tastier eggs from hens you know were humanely treated.”
As we rely more heavily on phones, apps, and instant information, there is something almost sacred in bearing witness to natural life cycles that would otherwise go unnoticed. For the students interacting with chickens, it can bring about a more meaningful connection to healthy living and a greater appreciation for the environment.
“It has been so wonderful to watch the students in the outdoor spaces we have created,” Hinchsliff says. “For all the work and time and passion we have put into the gardens, bees, and chicken coop, it’s so worth it when you see the light bulb go off in a student’s head, and they make a connection between themselves, what they are learning in the classroom, and the physical world around them.”
The Annual Windy City Coop Tour is scheduled for Saturday, September 20 and Sunday, September 21 from 10am–2 pm each day. For more info visit: ChicagoChickens.org
Interested in getting chickens of your own? For around $1,500, Andrew Blake and his team will deliver a turnkey coop, complete with baby chicks and instructions on care and upkeep. Visit NapTownChickens.org to learn more.