From the outside, an observer might have assumed that Hannah Kaplan and half-dozen other preschoolers at the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center’s Early Childhood Center were playing with their food.
The excited children mashed up bananas and tore cherry tomatoes on paper plates and then drowned their good work in a bowl of water. Their project for the day was to make ice pops out of the fruity remains. While an icy banana and tomato treat might not sound particularly appetizing to most people, it is delicious for the three chickens living at the VOSJCC.
“They like these a lot,” Kaplan said. “But their favorites are the frozen watermelon.”
Kaplan and her class have taken care of the three hens since they first hatched last year, becoming some of the ECC’s most effective long-term learning tools.
These are not the first chickens that the ECC has incorporated into its educational program. The hens, Marshmallow, Henrietta and Chocolate Chip — all of them were named by the kids — are the latest of an estimated 25 chickens the ECC has had at the VOSJCC since 2013.
It was then that the ECC summer camp and program coordinator, Trish Beattie, first brought in incubated eggs. She’s since brought in new eggs each year to show the students how the cycle of life works.
“The chickens are built in to the curriculum,” Beattie said. “We have a calendar printed out to show the children what’s going on inside the egg on a daily basis.”
With the latest trio, after the chickens hatched, the preschoolers took weekly turns as “chicken helper,” assisting in feeding and petting the birds.
Apart from teaching preschoolers how to make a frozen fruit salad, the chickens help students understand responsibility, anatomy and empathy. And they even give lessons about the fragility of life.
“We actually had four eggs, but after they hatched, one of the chickens didn’t make it,” Beattie said. “There was a bit of debate on whether or not we wanted to let the students know. We ended up telling them and I think they handled its death very well.”
Beattie said that there’s a lot of work to make sure the children properly care for the chickens. There are several lessons on the proper ways to hold and pet the chickens; The children take it one step further by singing and reading to the birds outside.
“I’ve had students who have graduated from the ECC a few years ago and when they have visited back they can still tell me everything about caring for a chicken,” Beattie said. “I think it was an experience for them rather than just a lesson that required paperwork. It was a very hands-on experience that stayed with them.”
The hens are beneficial to the community center in other ways, too. They provide free pest control by eating insects, arachnids and scorpions. The three fowl also lay eggs. The ECC is not one to waste anything, and the fresh eggs are used for recipes, such as challah bread on Shabbat, and for science experiments.
The chickens will be replaced at the start of the preschool’s spring semester with new incubated eggs. The three hens will find their new home at a farm.
When asked which was their favorite of the three chickens, the students unanimously screamed that Marshmallow was. Beattie also praised her as being the friendliest chicken. She added that the biggest troublemaker was Chocolate Chip.
“She’s super sweet around the kids, but I’ve gone in there to feed them and I’ll see a different side to her,” Beattie said. “I have these sandals that are super shiny and if she sees them she’ll start pecking away.” JN