Most Wednesday mornings, as school opens, the Erskine Library is a quiet, tranquil space. However, this Wednesday was buzzing with activity—a staging ground for our fifth graders as they dropped off piles of sleeping bags, boots, duffle bags, flashlights, toiletries, and other must-haves for their adventure to The Farm School. Out in bucolic Athol, The Farm School is a working farm and a non-profit educational organization on nearly 400 acres of land. Its mission is “to connect people to the land,” and our fifth graders were more than excited to do just that.
For years, our sixth graders enjoyed the three-day, two-night learning experience at The Farm School. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted that trip, and enrollment growth made the class size too big for the farm’s programming. It was tough to see it go, so I was elated when fifth grade teacher Vaniecia Skinner, suggested taking the eldest lower school students to The Farm School instead, confident it would be a powerful team-building and bonding opportunity for students and their teachers.
Yesterday, I was thrilled to put on my boots and join the class in Athol. For the first time, I got to experience what my colleagues and past middle schoolers raved about all these years. While the pastoral New England setting on a glorious autumn day was a sight to behold, I was struck even more by the thoughtful programming and how closely it matches Belmont Day’s mission, core values, and approach. Students are fully involved in the farm operation during their stay—tending to the land, rising early to milk cows and collect eggs, and assisting with preparing meals with the food they have harvested.
The students working with their hosts reminded me of how, at Belmont Day, we build on the benefits of hands-on learning and our responsibilities to the natural world. From pre-kindergartners harvesting potatoes to middle schoolers tending bees and all grades in between composting after meals in Coolidge Hall, our students learn the importance of our food and the work and thought that goes into its production.
Teamwork and collaboration were on display as students dug holes, planted garlic bulbs, scrubbed and cut vegetables for dinner, and pruned branches to clear trails for the farm’s animals. The Farm School puts “challenge by choice” at the forefront, and young people are empowered to decide their level of participation and engagement in an activity. Learning deepens because the student is in control of their learning and feels safe. For instance, some students reported that they were thrilled to have the opportunity to milk a cow, while others opted solely to be an observer. It was the same as we cleared brush in the woods—some students were skeptical about using a hand saw but gradually gained interest and confidence after seeing their classmates’ success. This mirrors how BDS teachers expertly meet students where they are in the classroom, offering each student the appropriate level of challenge and support and adjusting as needed.
The Farm School experience is the perfect metaphor for fifth grade, serving as a bridge between the two divisions in our school. As the oldest members of the lower school, fifth graders are so close to launching into middle school but still rely on gentle guidance from adults. They crave greater independence and the freedom of middle school but appreciate the boundaries and familiarity of the Labyrinth. While they had only been on the farm for half a day when I arrived, our students had already comfortably settled into life in this manner. They independently navigated the vast, open space with an adult at a safe distance, playing a game of hide and seek, picking flowers and fruit in the fields, and visiting the animals. During lunch, I overheard one student express sheer delight to a peer that they could remain indoors or venture outside to enjoy their food without an adult supervising them at each meal.
While I greeted students and teachers upon returning to campus today, I could sense how the brief time away had deeply impacted them, particularly those individuals who had never been away from home before. One student candidly admitted, “I really miss my family, but I am learning so much here and doing so many new things!” Just a few days at The Farm School has also led to stronger connections among peers. I observed students gathering and associating with classmates that they may not have gravitated towards before the trip.
As our students return to their families and friends this weekend, hopefully, they’ll regale them with lively accounts of the bus ride, the physical labor, the campfires, the farm animals, and undoubtedly, bedtime in the bunkhouses. It was magical, muddy fun that we all learned from, and I’m sure we won’t soon forget.
Have a great weekend, everyone!