Among the many classrooms of Manhattan Country School, one is much bigger than the rest—about 180 acres bigger. The working farm, located in the Catskills, three hours north of the school’s main Manhattan campus, is a key part of the school’s educational mission. Each year since 1966, when the K–8 school was founded, children who attend MCS have made three annual week-long trips to the farm, one in each season of the school year.
“The farm component was planned right from the start,” says John McDaniel, program director at the farm, which includes a barn, outbuildings, organic gardens, a textile studio and a maple syrup house. “The intention was less about the kids knowing where their food comes from than it was about honoring the work ethic that makes the world run and creating a true community where self-reliance is at the forefront.”
A Day at the Farm
Originally, there was no set curriculum, McDaniel tells Organic Connections. Students would arrive for their week-long stay and simply do whatever needed to be done. Now, there are areas of study that each student completes, covering textile weaving, cooking, gardening, and tapping maple trees for syrup production. But there’s still plenty of time for creative play, reflection and exploration.
Every student has daily chores, among them milking the cows and helping to cook the meals. The farmhouse holds about twenty kids during any one period, and each grade rotates in for a week at a time. There are also explorations further afield, such as visits to large-scale farms, field trips to study renewable energy, and extra classes in local history and musical traditions.
“I think the diversity of what we do is key,” explains McDaniel. “It’s not just a dairy farm, not just a vegetable farm. We produce all our own power via solar, and all our spinning and weaving is done with fleece from our sheep’s backs. These activities, especially with the older kids, tend to foster conversations about social inequity, or child labor. So we’re not only getting city kids out in the country, but giving their learning a real-world context. Kids are bombarded with so many points of view, but the whole idea of experiential education is that you really learn something by doing it.”
A Diverse Heritage
MCS is a sliding-scale tuition school, which enables families to pay tuition based on their means and embraces creative learners from many cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. “Here at the farm, the children make incredible connections with each other and the natural world,” McDaniel continues. “It’s easier to build community here than in an urban setting, where everyone goes home at 3:00 p.m. Some of these kids have country houses and are totally comfortable in a rural setting; but for others the natural world is still outside their comfort zone, even after they’ve been here seventeen times.”
The new skills and perspectives the students take away from the “country campus” assume many forms. For example, McDaniel says that, after their experiences on a working farm, many kids begin to question their family’s food shopping habits, reading labels carefully and making sure that their parents know where their food is coming from—and what it really costs.
The school’s curriculum emphasizes local and global sustainability as well as decision making based upon environmental and social justice, so the kids certainly learn about being good stewards and making informed choices. But in a wired world where everyone seems to have an electronic device within arm’s reach at all times, McDaniel points out that one of the greatest benefits of time on the farm is the way it nourishes natural creativity.
“Free time is deliberately scheduled into the day, and it’s adult supervised but child directed,” he says. “Just watching kids make their own fun is an amazing experience.”
Looking to the Past, Planning for the Future
McDaniel and his wife, Donna, who teaches cooking at the farm, have both taught at the MCS farm for twenty-five years, and others on the seven-person farm staff have been there even longer. McDaniel himself has a background in environmental science and says, “I thought I’d be doing research somewhere, but my classroom became this 180-acre farm.”
MCS is now looking to expand its farm facilities and is exploring other ways to make use of this unique resource. “The conversations are exciting,” says McDaniel. “Can we really supply 80 or 90 percent of our city lunches from our own farm? Can we create a CSA for our school community and get families more involved?”
As our talk ended, McDaniel was heading to the farmhouse to prepare for the next group of students—eighth graders on their final visit to the farm before moving on to their new schools. “These kids will be saying goodbye to us, saying goodbye to the farm, so it’s very emotional,” McDaniel concludes. “This is my home, and for the kids it’s a home away from home also, a place to return each season. Here, we all do the same work, regardless of background. The farm is the great leveler.”
To learn more about Manhattan Country School Farm, visit www.manhattancountryschool.org