Free-range children

Written by Jessica Ekern on .

The day begins with a morning drop-off that could be straight out of a movie. Stretching down the road is a line of cars with kids hanging out of the windows, eager to jump into their day.

As the cars pull up to the preschool, each family is greeted by Amanda Myers—Miss Amanda to her young students. With encouraging words, she opens the car door and plucks out the preschoolers with a big hug. Her enthusiasm is in­fectious. Once their feet hit the ground, the little ones run to the school door where fellow teacher Brynn Kent welcomes them again with her loving smile and kind embrace.

Miss Amanda blows her whistle, signaling the start of four hours of learning and play for these youngsters. But this is no ordinary preschool. It’s “farm school,” where agriculture, nature and education combine to provide an extraordinary experience for pre-kindergarten kids.

“The teachers on this farm bring out the best in every kid who walks through that door—it’s their superpower,” said parent Katie Mills. “I secretly pull away wishing my 37-year-old self was getting dropped off there for some fun, too.”

Remember the magic of Field of Dreams? A man inspired by a nagging voice and the phrase, “If you build it, he will come.” It was a dream that seemed impossible, whimsical, even crazy. If you build it, he will come—a baseball field in the middle of an Iowa corn field.

Myers had a similar relentless voice and vision in her head. After she and her family moved to a small farm outside Kansas City in Raymore, Mo., the neighborhood, the house and the land seemed to speak to her. The dream began as a church group with four “little farmers” and a few farm animals in 2017. It quickly grew into Lolly & Pop’s Farm and Preschool, aka Farmschool, with four sessions a week, 25 little farmers per session, four teachers, many farm animals and a wait list of more than 200 children.

“It is a very unique form of learning that I believe impacts the child for a lifetime,” Myers said. “The kids learn about being brave and that you can do hard things. Many times, we have little farmers who are scared of dogs or animals or being outside and getting dirty. But being in a safe environ­ment on the farm and taking healthy risks helps them to overcome the challenges and fears and excel.”

At Lolly & Pop’s, the day is filled with high energy and nonstop learning. The indoor classroom embraces kinship with two long community tables for lessons, stories, songs, crafts, snacks and lunch. Music, ranging from country and classical to rock-n-roll and reggae, is always playing in the background. “Music helps everyone learn,” Myers explained.

Each morning, once the backpacks are dropped off inside, the little farmers— dressed for the weather—hop into their farm boots and head outdoors for free play.

“The best days are mud days,” Kent said, as the preschoolers find fresh puddles to jump in, drive toy trucks through and build bridges over. Missouri mud surfing and puddle wars are some of the activi­ties that the kids share with their parents through stories and dirty clothes at the end of the day.

“As a teacher, I have high expectations for who I entrust to invest in the lives of my kids,” said parent Sarah Schlobohm. “Farmschool has been nothing short of the most incredible learning and growing experience for our oldest son. He started farm school as a shy, introverted little boy who was hesitant to try anything. After just one school year on the farm, he’s grown into such a brave, risk-taking, farm-loving boy. He’s not only learning academics, but more importantly, he is learning life skills.”

The Farmschool activities start with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. With her trusty whistle, Miss Amanda, who is a mother of seven and married to a retired Marine, gathers the little farmers in front of the flag. After they recite the pledge, the children come together with hands in the air. “This hand is for us, and this hand is for Jesus,” Myers says before leading them in prayer.

Farm chores are the next part of the morning. The little farmers hurry to put on their work gloves and race off to look after the animals. Their duties range from feeding and watering the menagerie to trimming the chickens’ wings. No matter the season, the little farmers and their teachers are outdoors for the first two hours, exploring, playing and doing their chores.

“Outside play is therapy for many kids because they don’t get enough outside time,” Kent said. “It’s therapy for the teachers as well.”

Once all the animals are cared for and the chicken and duck eggs are collected to be sold at a local market, there are lots of high fives and praises of, “Nice job, farmers!” from the teachers. The whistle sounds again, and the preschoolers run toward the house to change from their work boots to their street shoes. Then it’s snacks and “table time.”

“After two hours of active time outdoors, the kids are ready to take a break and to sit down for 45 minutes of learning,” Myers said. “We talk about table manners and etiquette, cleaning up after yourself and being kind to one another. We talk to them like they are our own kids.”

And parents say they see the results at home.

“My son has gained confidence at Farmschool and is a better helper around the house,” Chenelle Summers said. “He also cares about manners more than he did. It’s a really great experi­ence for your little one to get to still be a kid for a while in the midst of learning so much.”

Simply put, children thrive in this environment of hands-on learning with animals, plants and nature. This approach to preschool education isn’t new, but it has been growing in pop­ularity in recent years. Nature preschools, also known as forest kindergartens and outdoor schools, have been in existence since the mid-1960s in the United States. According to the Natural Start Alliance, the number of U.S. forest kindergartens and out­door preschools has more than doubled since 2017, with 585 listed in 2020. This number represents schools that have fully adopted nature-based education as the core of their program.

Introducing environmental awareness to early childhood education has long been supported by research. Environmental education professionals Judy Braus and Sarah Milligan-Toffler said that “children who bond with nature develop critical and creative thinking skills that will help them succeed in life.”

Myers said she’s seen the positive outcomes with the children and families at her Farmschool and would like to see more of this type of education. Leslie Culpepper couldn’t agree more. As a second-grade teacher in the local elementary school, she yearned to open a preschool on her family’s farm in Harrison­ville, Mo., about 20 miles south of Lolly & Pop’s Farmschool. Last year, that vision became reality.

“I wanted my children and others to experience the fun I had growing up on a dairy farm,” said Culpepper, the mother of three. “I spent my days playing with animals, digging in dirt, climbing trees and catching bugs. I realized that not everyone had the opportunity to experience the benefits of being raised in a rural environment. Combining my per­sonal love of farm life with my professional experience as a teacher, it seemed only natural to start a farm preschool.”

As she explored the possibilities, she sought advice from her husband, also a teacher, and her family. Culpepper vetted the idea with local families and discovered there was a farm school in Raymore. She reached out to Myers.

“Amanda very graciously showed me around and answered any question I had,” Culpepper said.

The pieces started falling into place. Culpepper’s cousin, Matt Moreland, offered his home and Red Barn Ranch, an agritour­ism operation with a pumpkin patch, animals and event space, to start her new venture. 

LC’s Farm School opened in August 2021, offering four sessions a week with 10 “little ranchers” per session and Culpepper and Alli­son Brown as teachers. The school’s namesake is Culpepper’s grandfather, Leslie Columbus Moreland, whose family has been farming the land for more than 75 years. The Morelands currently raise beef cattle, corn and soybeans.

By December, with demand ripening and the wait list lengthening, Culpepper said she felt confident her farm school would flourish. She hired an additional teacher to accommodate morning and afternoon sessions and closed the first academic year with a total of 50 little ranchers.

The typical day begins with circle time inside the schoolhouse. The little ranchers sing a song and learn the lesson of the day. Then it’s time to go outside for chores, which include feeding the chickens, putting down new straw, petting the rabbits or running around with the goats.

“Our farm animals require responsibility and daily routine, which are important skills for children to learn,” Culpepper said. “Taking care of animals makes us all happy and helps teach compassion, empathy and sympathy.”

As they come together to complete the farm chores, the children also learn teamwork, which is something that parent Melissa McClung said she appreciates after her son’s “disastrous experi­ence” in a traditional preschool.

“LC’s Farm School captured a place in his heart and ours!” McClung said. “Not only is he reading and doing addition and subtraction, but he also knows life lessons like ‘chores before play’ and ‘friends are more important than doing what you want to do.’ He is so excited about kindergarten and is better prepared emotionally, socially and intellectually than he would have been from any other school.”

Once chores are completed, there are plenty of outdoor ad­ventures at the Red Barn Ranch. The little ranchers play in the barns and on the silo slide and huge dump truck slide. They plant a small garden, perform science experiments and have scavenger hunts. Culpepper also drives them around in a barrel train to explore the farm and woods as they talk about what they are observing.

“My son has always thrived in an outdoor environment, and knowing Leslie’s reputation as an excellent educator made it an easy decision for him to begin preschool as a 3-year-old here,” said parent Leanna Garlock. “Watching his growth and develop­ment throughout the school year has been so rewarding.”

With the first academic year under her farm hat, Culpepper’s goal is to build a larger space for the indoor classroom, where the young students learn about art and music and focus on preschool standards such as counting to 20, colors, shapes and letters. These lessons complement the farm school’s outdoor learning activities and help the children cultivate curiosity, develop work ethic and organically soak up academic bench­marks.

“My vision is to provide quality, authentic learning through play and nature-based experiences like I had growing up,” Culpepper said. “Our little ranchers learn to appreciate the land and see first-hand how farmers strive to keep our earth sustain­able.”

For both LC’s Farm School and Lolly & Pop’s, the teachers say the ultimate goal is to build a lasting legacy.

“I am so proud when I have families and kids come back and share their experiences,” Myers said. “We develop a real, genu­ine relationship with our families. You should see graduation. It is a tearful event for all, filled with joy, gratitude and happiness. You know, if you plant a seed, anything can happen.”

For more information, visit these farm schools online at lollyandpopsblog.wordpress and lcfarmschool.com.