I started working at ASEBP this past March and, as I heard from my new teammates about all the awesome wellness and comprehensive school health ideas shared at this year's Shaping the Future Conference, I also heard a lot about chickens. Yes, you read that right—chickens. I had to know, what do chickens have to do with health promotion and workplace wellness?!? My interest was certainly beaked…er…peaked. I reached out to Monique Webb at Morinville Public School (Sturgeon Public School Division) to learn more about this feathery mystery that they’ve coined the Learning Farm, and how it all connects to wellness.
Leslie: Monique, can you tell me about the Learning Farm and how you came up with the idea?
Monique: The idea of having a chicken coop came from the grade three life cycle project that a colleague of mine did every year. I would often help with the project by connecting with community members and local farms to find homes for the chicks we would hatch. We always thought it would be great if we could just keep the chicks and raise them. Then, when North West Redwater Partnership sent out their Waste Into Worth Challenge, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to turn our school’s ‘wasted space’ into a chicken coop?” We didn’t think the idea would go very far—it seemed so crazy! But then again, urban chicken coops were very trendy, so we thought that if someone took us seriously, we might just be able to pull it off. The Learning Farm dream was to have a large chicken coop and grassy yard where students, staff and families could spend time outdoors, interacting with animals and each other. Which, of course, as research has proven time and time again, improves mental health.
L: It’s such a cool idea! What kind of support did you receive and how did it bring people together?
M: In the beginning, we had a ton of support from our principal. We would never have even been able to apply for the grant without her blessing and support. Secondly, we needed support from our fellow staff. We knew it would take a team to get the coop built and maintain it, so we were going to need several staff who had a passion for the project. I was initially surprised at how many staff were interested in helping. Many of them also shared the belief and vision that this project could bring a lot of joy to our school and our own workspace. We also received a lot of community support. The Town of Morinville was instrumental in helping us through the permit process—even changing a few bylaws so that we could move forward with the project! Our school community and local businesses were quick to jump on board as well. The whole community just loved the idea of an entire school spending more time outside and interacting with animals. It’s incredibly contagious! The more joy and laughter we had being involved in the project, the more support poured in.
L: That does sound infectious, in the best possible way! How would you say the Learning Farm has boosted staff wellness in particular?
M: Our staff have really enjoyed the project. It has brought together a diverse group of teachers and support staff that would never have normally connected. Too often we tend to stick to our grade groups, socialize with those closest to us in our areas or bond with those who have kids the same age. This project really helped us branch out and collaborate with people in completely new ways.
The Learning Farm also generated a lot of conversation. Everyone was eager to ask questions and wanted to know the status of the chickens. All of a sudden we saw an increase in hallway conversations and chatter around the copy machine. These were all really positive conversations that gave us a chance to talk about and connect around something completely new and different.
It also gave us a great chance to take risks, experiment and be vulnerable. Of course, none of us were experts in chickens or farming but, collectively, we had a lot of knowledge and experience and what we didn’t know, we had to learn. And because we had created this great, safe group, it was okay to try—and sometimes fail. We supported one another, we laughed at our mistakes and we tried again. Isn’t this what we ask our students to do every day? It was so nice to take time to create this space for ourselves and to celebrate all this learning. It was really refreshing. It even inspired some staff to build their own urban chicken coops at home! Many of our staff will also be able to take home eggs from our coop—a nice little gift of thanks from our feathered friends.
L: How fun! It’s amazing to hear how everyone came together and is benefitting from the chicks. Is there any advice you would give to another school that wanted to start their own Learning Farm or similar type of project?
M: Our advice would be to just go for it no matter how crazy or unusual your idea is! Too often we shut down our own ideas before we unleash them into the world. You’ll never know the potential of an idea until you take a chance and share it. I think we’re all looking for fresh ideas on how to improve wellness so it’s an exciting time to be thinking outside the box.
There are so many grants out there, and often businesses and school communities will support ideas that come from the heart. If you love it, others will love it too. You just have to find the right match!
L: I couldn’t agree with you more. Lastly, I understand that there will be changes in the school as grades five through nine move into the new Four Winds Public School this fall. What are the plans to continue the momentum of the Learning Farm? Will it live on in the new school? Will former staff and students be able to come back and visit?
M: Yes, our older grades will be moving on to a new school site. The coop will remain at our school with our K-4 students but, of course, all the students, staff and their families will be welcome to visit whenever they like—just contact the school first to schedule a time. Luckily, several members of our Learning Farm team will be going over to the new school as well. We hope to still be able to collaborate and help them set up their own Learning Farm there when they’re ready. Staff who are interested in the Learning Farm throughout the division are also welcome to contact the school to learn more.
So there you have it folks, when you mix opportunity, supportive people who are willing to take a risk and a wacky idea, you just may end up with something to cluck about! Thank you, Monique, for sharing your incredibly cool idea and for telling us the story of how the Learning Farm chickens connected your school community in wellness. If you have a wacky workplace wellness idea to share, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below!