Building Life Skills
An After-School Program
In May of 2023, Cooper’s Crossroad launched a Farming for Resilience after-school program. The goal of the 6-week program is to build life skills, and six students from kindergarten through 3rd grade participated.
The program was designed and facilitated by Erin Ballard and Iria Doescher. I had the pleasure of volunteering for 5 of the 6 sessions, and felt the program imprinted lasting memories of laughter, courage, expression, and open air learning and exploration.
Elm Farm is far from a classroom, yet there are so many lessons to be learned through participant’s engagement in new experiences, interactions, and projects. Below is a collage of reflections during the 6-week program.
Week 1: Introduction to Elm Farm – creating barn rules together, meeting all our barn friends, and walking the property at Elm Farm
The participants arrived a little early – and it was clear they were totally captivated with Elm Farm. We started with introductions, making name tags, and creating barn rules together. Some examples of the rules the kids came up with: be kind to others and animals, use quiet voices and quiet feet, no curse words, and no pushing, smacking, or talking over others. The children then signed their barn rules poster to seal the deal. Honestly throughout the program due to their sheer excitement – “use your quiet feet and quiet voices” was reinforced repeatedly! Our participants shined in brilliance as they participated in their activities.
We then moved on to meeting all our barn friends. We started withthe goats: Ginger, Nutmeg and Pepper. Our goats are fast and fun and have a lot to say about pretty much anything and everything. The participants were present in their stall during the feeding, which provided an excellent opportunity to discuss nutrition and feeding habits. Then we were off to the barn yard where we were greeted by our eagerly waiting four-legged equine friends, some big and some small. It was such a delight seeing participant’s responses as they learned to hold their hands out palm up with the horses, and witnessing all these small hands navigating such magnificent animals through touch. It was clear to me that connections were being made as the horses and kids communicated by touch without words. Then we were off to the chicken coop, where giggles and laughter were heard at the impossible opportunity to catch a chicken. This game of one way tag was fun to watch. The kids learned about how the chicken house was set up, and how we collect their eggs.
After the walkabout of the farm our hour was up. There was one participant who caught my eye who appeared shy around the horses during the initial meet and greet in the barnyard. As most kids were packing up to go back to the vans, this one took off in the opposite direction and went back out in the barnyard and touched every horse briefly. No words for this – just a magic moment that brought full circle how much this child was processing and how poignant the intention to return on his own. I could not use words as he passed me by to get on the van – I could only smile.
Week 2: This week’s theme was “Teamwork”
Our eager participants arrived and we discussed principles of teamwork, how they apply to the equine-human relationship and why is important to work as team together. We established a 2:1 ratio of kids to horses to learn the fundamentals about grooming. I was delighted to be a part of this as I witnessed the participants start to communicate with their equine friends through touch and grooming. With a focused task these children started to see things like the pattern of the horses’ hair – how to loosen dirt and brush it off. They were able to experience the thickness of the manes and tails and learn that when you comb the horses, it doesn’t hurt when you pull. Then there was cleaning the hooves, an important task that doesn’t always go as planned, yet through patience and perseverance the job gets done.
Next on our agenda was leading the horses on ground through Elm Farm’s back pasture, then the kids learned to navigate their equine partners through an obstacle course. I enjoyed stepping back to see the students take the lead to direct their horses on their walk. Once they settled in building confidence with every step, they seamlessly were able to navigate the obstacle course, forging more of a relationship through body movement and intent with each turn in the obstacle course. Today’s journey working with horses seemed like they were “joining up with them” – building a partnership of trust. My participants were so excited at the end of the obstacle course, they told me they couldn’t wait to ride the horses.
Following their first grooming and leading activities, each child picked out two horseshoes and scrubbed them clean. I have to say there were no quiet feet today to be heard! More to come on the horseshoes.
Week 3: The third week’s theme was "Communication"
As a group we went to the outdoor run where the students interacted with two horses. Each student was handed a paper with pictures showing ways horses communicate through body language. Iria and Erin had the students use their fingers and pretend to have horse ears to illustrate ears forward and ears backward and what that may mean. Then we broke into two groups: one group groomed and saddled up the horses, and the second group worked at the art station. Jeff and Teresa were new volunteers to the program. Teresa and I were assigned to the art station and Jeff assisted with the horse ride. I asked Jeff to share his perspective and this is what he wrote:
“My experience working with these great kids was amazing from the first day. The students really were comfortable with the horses and loved grooming and brushing them. To watch the young kids ride on a horse for the first time was so rewarding for me as well as them. I think the children felt a kinship to the horses. Many of the kids were happy and overjoyed to be on a horse and to help with their care. The children had a very positive experience with the horses that maybe human interaction could not accomplish.”
Teresa and I had set out acrylic paints and the art project was to paint the horseshoes. The varied compositions and use of colors, the array of strokes to paint, their focus and smiles were all amazing. One thing that really touched me was their discovery to mix blue and yellow to make green, and to mix red and yellow to make orange. It was as if the magic of color was blossoming right before their eyes.
I asked Teresa to also sum up her experience as a new volunteer for Farming for Resilience: “Volunteering has been a wonderful and rewarding experience working with the kids and horses. The children learn about horse care and behavior. As soon as they get off the bus at the farm, they are all smiles and ready to do crafts as well as riding the horses. I am so excited to see these kids have fun, laugh and enjoy working together as a group. I am so happy working with the kids and see the incredible differences this program has made in their lives as well as in mine. I love working with all the staff and children. Amazing to see all these changes in these kids after just a few times at the farm.”
Week 4: Gaining insight into our wants and needs and recognizing those of our equine friends – scavenger hunt
Week four focused on the wants and needs of the horses and making the connection to a human’s wants and needs. As a team we set up a scavenger hunt for the participants all over the property finding clues, learning about wants and needs of the horses as well as enrichment (what do they like to do for fun?) and answering questions. We learned about horses’ nutrition, what do they need for shelter, who are their friends, how do they keep warm or dry, what do they do for fun, how do they exercise? We were able to make the connection to what we do for all those things (eat healthy meals, wear jackets, play games, play with friends, and that our houses are our shelters to name a few). The kids really loved finding the clues all over Elm Farm and were very engaged in the activity. As a co-facilitator, I (Iria) was touched by how the kids talked about Cooper’s Crossroad being a place they feel safe at. We were all very tired at the end from all the running, jumping and skipping.
Week 5: Gratitude: sidewalk chalk art, bathing horses (hot 90 degree day)
This day in particular was incredibly hot, too hot to ride! As a team, we decided to redirect the planned activity to instead bathing the horses, as well as working more on our art projects, and writing on our cement breezeway different things that we are grateful for. We were divided into one horse bathing group and one art group. It was also extra special for the kids as some volunteers of the program brought over treats and snacks for the kids, so we were also able to express our gratitude in one way for the participants with different treats. When the kids got there we let them know the plan for the day, and used this time to set everything up.
The first group who started off with bathing came into the barn with all the horses on the crossties, and got to select the first horse they would like to bathe, knowing though that we would end up bathing all of the horses. This was incredibly fun to watch as they took turns trying to figure out how to use the hose, how to put soap on the horses, and working together to clean the horses up as well as help cool them down. This worked for the kids as well! There were of course some loose sprays from the hose accompanied by giggles from being sprayed with water. After the designated amount of time, the groups swapped.
For the next station they went to work more on painting their horseshoes, their wood pieces, as well as using sidewalk chalk to decorate the breezeway with anything they were grateful for. We had anything from their families, horses, strawberries, all the way to rainbows. It was pretty incredible to see these kids sit on the ground with all this open canvas and fill it with beautiful drawings and designs without any limitations on what they could create.
When they were done or wanted a break, they were welcome to eat a cupcake or drink some juice. These treats were the team’s way to show our gratitude for their continued openness, ability to show up and try new things, and to take pride in their efforts.
Week 6: Courage: horse ride, hand print collage
We started with talking about courage and what it means. The participants were split into two groups. The riders rode through Elm Farm enjoying the trees and pasture, and I stayed back to help the students make a collage with their hand prints. The art collage proved to be fun, entertaining, and a beautiful testimony to the hands whose lives are enriched by the program. We finished before the riders, so we played tag and walked to pond to explore the outdoors before the teams switched.
Sharon Arnone, the Monadnock Title I Administrative Coordinator & Homeless Liaison attended each session with the children and stated the following: “One lovely outcome was how this experience expanded communication between the children and their parents. They were saying that the children couldn't stop talking about everything they did at the farm.” She also shared one participant saying “I can’t wait to face my fear.” The girl initially rode a pony, eventually a horse, and looked like she felt safe and proud. I had three participants this day tell me they wish they could come during the summer. We celebrated our final goodbyes with cake and goodies, waves and smiles!