If animals can be a child’s fourth educator, have you thought about a two legged beastie becoming a bestie for children at your service? We’re looking at hens this week, one of the closest living relations of dinosaurs and yet also one of humanity’s longest running domestic animal companions. Amplify editor Bec Lloyd checks out chooks as chums for children in this article.
Sustainability on two legs
If your service has a garden you’ve probably seen it change enormously in the past six or seven years with the National Quality Framework (NQF) putting a ‘sustainability’ stamp of approval over the pre-existing trend towards more natural learning spaces.
While vegetable patches, raised garden beds, irrigation, scarecrows and mud kitchens are some common elements of the sector’s revised outdoor areas, animated additions are also increasingly popular.
Rabbits, guinea pigs and other small mammals may by now have a hutch outdoors on your site, and worm farms make frequent appearances in early years services.
But what about that other domestic animal enjoying a huge comeback in backyards around Australia? A creature that not only helps you recycle food scraps, but keeps bugs in hand and even gives back to your kitchen with astonishing generosity? In short, have you considered inviting some hens to make a home at your service?
Chat about chooks
In this story we’ll refer to chickens as chooks (the affectionate Australian slang) and hens, to distinguish them from the visiting egg hatching programs for chicks/chickens which are a very different, temporary, experience.
So let’s assume you’ve got this far in the story because your outdoor area has the potential for keeping some hens – two or three is a nice number for new chook guardians.
Now we’ve established that it’s possible, ask yourself if it’s desirable? While we always want to hear children’s voices, this is one of those times when it’s a good idea to have the discussion among adults at your service first. You may find you’ve got an educator on staff with a feather allergy, or a deathly fear of walking birds, or someone with extensive chook handling experience who has reservations about your space or, alternatively, ideas to make the venture even more successful.
Talking as a team always creates an opportunity to hear about other services in each educator’s networks – there may be one you can contact a happy hen house on site. It would be very helpful to see what their advice is for a service new to the task of poultry-keeping.
There are businesses that will ‘rent’ a little flock of chooks to you, including housing, so you can test how suitable your space really is. Think about what risks you might have (more on this later) and how you would manage them in the same way as any other activity at your service. This information sheet from ACECQA is also a helpful starting point.
Check for objections
Then it’s time to talk to children and their families. You know your community, so choose an approach that will allow you to share your thoughts without raising expectations too high, and so you can share a clear view of the benefits and risks, and how you will mitigate them.
Allow time for families to absorb the information – it can take several weeks of weekly messages for all your tired and busy parents to see and respond to a request for feedback. There could be some objections among what will otherwise probably be a very positive response.
Similarly, children may need time to fully understand the idea. A child may have had a bad experience with a hen at a petting zoo, which doesn’t bother them as you read about the duck in Sue Williams’ I went walking book but re-emerges strongly when confronted again by a large live bird.
Use your usual communication and relationship building strategies to assess support and follow through on any objections. If you feel one hardliner is blocking otherwise overwhelming support, it might be worth having a hard conversation – or time to shelve the chook-keeping plans for a year!
What do you need to keep chooks?
There will be variations depending on your location, council rules, and outdoor location, but a foundation list can include:
- a watertight coop with good ventilation, and roosting and nesting space inside for the chooks
- one or two nesting boxes that both adults and children can easily reach in and check
- a secure ‘run’ where the hens can walk about during the day and be safe from predators like foxes, carpet snakes and goannas, even in the city
- containers for ample food and water, these should be ‘self-serve’ style if the chooks are left alone on weekends
- a dry bedding material like straw or wood shavings
- good quality feed to suit the age of your hens
- access to a vet in case of injuries
- education – for the educators and children – about food, handling and basic healthcare like administering worming mixes
- company! Hens are social animals and curious about their world – they need at least one other poultry companion and will love being alongside children at times too.
From the keeper
Kara Cooper is a Blue Mountains based mother of two young girls, a hen enthusiast, and an artist who has been known to include chooks in her work. Currently the president of the Lithgow & District Poultry Club (or find them on Facebook), Kara shared her experience of raising heritage breed hens around very young daughters and their friends. Her firm advice to anyone considering hens is, ‘I want EVERY child to enjoy chooks so just go get some!’
She answered Amplify’s questions and shared her experience of keeping chooks around children and gives us more interesting breeds to choose than ‘red, white and black’ for children’s services in Australia.
What are the benefits for children of being around hens?
My children have benefitted so much being around chooks. From watching them hatch to illness and death, they have learnt about the life cycle of a beloved pet.
Kids these days don’t get their hands dirty enough. Soil, chook poo, helping muck out pens and change bedding, and ensuring the chooks get their scraps from the dinner table (or daytime meals and snacks from early learning services). This is all so valuable.
Poultry are so rewarding. Not many people realise they are quite intelligent, much more than we give them credit for! If you sit quietly and watch your flock you will see the hierarchy and dynamics within the group. Much more interesting than a soap opera!
They give us food, they eat all our scraps and reduce food waste, clean up bugs and pests in the backyard, make amazing pets and you can get such an array of unusual breeds. I urge you to discover more beyond the old ‘red, white and black’ variety. Go forth and explore!
How do you introduce a chook to a child who hasn’t been close to one before?
I like to teach kids straight away about handling a bird. If the child can learn the correct way to handle them so that the bird rests properly and you are able to keep the bird to you so that their wings are kept tight, the bird feels secure and the child won’t be frightened. A big flapping chook can be scary – and they are strong!
I love keeping bantams for this reason. A nice small, docile smaller breed makes an introduction to keeping poultry simple. We keep d’Anvers which are part of the Belgian breed. They are bearded ladies and so sweet! The boys can be feisty but being a small breed, I have taught my two children how to approach and hold the bird so that he doesn’t feel his flock is being threatened. I wouldn’t recommend adding a rooster to a flock in a children’s service, in any case.
Some of the best bantam breeds for kids are Silkies, Japanese, Pekins, Belgians. For standard (full size) birds I love Australorps and Faverolles. Langshans also have a lovely temperament and can be found as bantams and standard size. I am biased though! I much prefer heritage breeds to commercial hybrids but want EVERY child to enjoy chooks so just go get some!
What things should we be cautious about when combining children and chooks?
Eg, damage to chook or child, parasite or illness transfer, phobias, etc
Number one is teaching a child not to bob down and stick their faces in front of the chook. Poultry are inquisitive and like to peck. An eye could be damaged by a well-meaning inquisitive peck.
And don’t forget the wellbeing of a chook. There is nothing worse than an over-enthusiastic child clutching a baby chick. It’s a short-lived experience as the chick gets lovingly crushed to death. I’ve also seen kids (and parents!) holding a chook then throwing it into the air. Poultry don’t really fly in that way so a heavy bred bird can land hard and hurt its wings, breast or leg injuries. Adults must always be around to watch kids handling birds.
I highly recommend visiting the poultry section of your local agricultural show or finding out more from your local poultry club about handling and care for your birds. You will gain so much knowledge from very experienced breeders and enthusiasts.
Not too much affects hens, but always wash your hands after holding them as there is a chance they may carry salmonella. Wash after handling the bird, the eggs or being around the coop.
Why purebred poultry?
Heritage poultry breeds have been around a long time. The array of magnificent breeds and colours are dazzling and it’s always sad to see people choose commercial layers or hybrids over heritage breeds.
Commercial birds were developed by us humans to create a superbird designed to lay every day. Heritage breeds can lay 180-250 eggs per year (some breeds more and some less) but you give your birds a chance to rest like when they are in moult then they regain their strength and lay again.
Commercial hybrids need a much higher protein diet to make those eggs every day and don’t live as long as heritage breeds.
Kids adore the variety among heritage breed chooks and in a children’s service your main goal isn’t high egg production, so go check out the variety of breeds out there. Select a couple of different heritage breeds and see which one suits your family life best.
A word of warning though, keeping chooks is addictive so watch out when you want to keep adding to your flock’s variety of colours, sizes, combs and characters!