How to include your kids in farm work

By Jennifer Nelson, MOSES Organic Specialist

Go to main Farm Safety for Children webpage

We get it. Don’t put kids on tractors and keep them out of working areas, especially when using  machinery, and when you, the parent, are busy working. Stuff can happen in a second, and it’s not safe.

So how DO we include our kids safely in the daily workings on the farm? We want them to learn to work and be a part of the big picture. How do we teach and include them while ensuring their safety?

I strongly recommend the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation’s North American Guidelines for Children’s Agricultural Tasks (NAGCAT). It has been my privilege to sit on the NAGCAT committee for the past year with many amazing folks from different areas of agriculture and health education in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve been working on a really cool app that parents can use to help them determine if their children and employees are capable of tasks assigned. Stay tuned to the website above for more on that.

One great resource from the many they provide is the Principles of Child Development, a list of age-based characteristics and the corresponding safety strategies. For example, on the chart for children ages 7-9, the characteristic is: A 12-15 minute attention span, impulsive behavior, and a tendency to become easily distracted puts children at risk for injury if a job is too long. The corresponding safety strategy is: Give children short, easily completed jobs. This can be a great resource to refer to as children grow and become more interested in helping with farm tasks.

With access to knowledge about children’s development, we can better discern what tasks and areas on our farms that we know so well are appropriate to teach our children.

I have an Elementary Education degree and taught in a few different settings for five years or so, until I decided to follow my farm dreams. I still love the process of participating in the education of a child. In my little bit of experience, I’ve found a few things that can be done to effectively teach kids in any setting.

First, one really important aspect of any kind of teaching or dealings with children is consistency. Kids—really, all of us—love to know what to expect and what’s next. Children like to be able to count on their surroundings, care providers and the schedule. Setting up a work space in a way that your child knows where s/he can be safely is a big first step. With that, modeling consistency in what you do each day on a relatively consistent schedule can also really set the foundation for successful teaching. If a child knows how and where to go to get tools and when to use that tool, learning the actual activity can be much easier. This doesn’t happen overnight, but through repetition, consistency and time. Also, what is and is not acceptable behavior and action in the workplace comes through that modeling and sense of purpose.

The old adage of children will do what you do, not what you say, is also true to teaching farm work. Modeling is one the best tools we have in parenting and teaching. We can model the careful, calm, industrious work attitudes and behaviors we want our children to have. Building on that foundation, we can then model how to do a day-to-day job. I certainly don’t always do a job absolutely safely, and with calm industriousness. But, as I see my son watching me, I am more aware of my behavior and attitude.

Another important way to teach is to give kids an opportunity to do the work. I try to allow opportunity for my son to participate in daily tasks quite often. While we’re not at the point yet when he’s able to help us work on the farm, we hope to instill basic understandings through day-to-day living work to prepare him for future farm work. I think this is a good place to mention that we don’t want to force it on him. We love this work and value the life that we have on the farm, but also know that’s it’s not for everyone, and it may not be for him as he grows up and makes his own choices. Right now, he seems pretty happy, loves the good food and being outside, and doesn’t mind getting dirty. Sometimes he gets a little mad at the flowers for the time and attention they take away from him. It’s true, especially in our first years on our new farm, the flowers do take A LOT of our time and energy. There’s a good lesson in that too, and it’s all about the struggle for balance.

He does respond to the opportunity to do work that we all value and contributes to the good of our life, and he appreciates being involved in our daily life activities in an authentic way. I’m confident that as we continue to grow as a family and a farm business, he will continue to learn and become more involved. If he gets to an age when he is able and decides to do other things, we will also deal with that. We prioritize the health of our family before the success of our farm business, and we will work to preserve that first. That in itself is a good lesson in balance for him.



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