A key reason my husband Jae and I began raising poultry is that we wanted our sons to learn about the great circle of life, to develop respect for animals and to increase their responsibility through farming. My grandmother had done the same for me, and I believed my boys would benefit from the same exposure to chicken keeping I had experienced.
We’ve definitely had our share of days where our kids slacked and griped, especially during snowy winter months. Fortunately, we’ve also had wonderful moments we’ll remember forever, such as our youngest, Bryce, standing guard by our incubator, keeping vigil every hatching day. There’s also the time when our son Jaeson insisted on carrying his Silkie hen, Altaria, as his Easter Egg-hunting partner. We won’t soon forget our son Nicholas rushing to the defense of our cockerel, Eduardo, when an opossum invaded his pen. Then there’s the time our oldest, Michael, carefully practiced his pre-vet skills on our hen Flapjack, who had gashed her leg. All in all, we are very proud of our sons and their poultry-wrangling abilities.
Mind you, we didn’t just toss our sons out the door and tell them, “Go deal with the chickens!” Sure, we might do that now, but we started them far more gently. If you’d like to involve your children in your chicken-keeping adventures, here are three roles perfect for starting them down the poultry path.
1. Egg Gatherer
Homegrown eggs are one of the joys of keeping a backyard flock. Nothing quite beats the wonder of opening a nestbox to see a freshly laid egg inside. Teaching your child how to collect these tasty treasures is a perfect first farming task. Before heading out to your henhouse, have your child practice handling an egg, preferably over your kitchen sink in case it breaks. This way, he or she can get a feel for the egg’s texture, weight and fragility.
Once he or she is accustomed to the egg, have your little one practice handling your collection basket. Demonstrate how to carry it levelly, and take the time to explain why swinging the basket creates unexpected scrambled eggs. Show your child how to gently put an egg into the basket; each of our boys just plunked (or possibly threw?) their first eggs in. Be sure to demonstrate how to put in additional eggs, explaining that they might crack against each other if not set down gently.
Next, take your child out to your coop and show how to keep the nestbox lid open while collecting the egg. Have your little helper show you how he or she will do it. All of my sons used their heads—literally—to keep the nestbox lid open while reaching in for the egg with one hand and holding the basket with the other. As long as his or her chosen method works, be more encouraging than critical.
Finally, select a day that will be your child’s first egg-collecting day. Mark it on the calendar and count down to it to build anticipation. When the day arrives, accompany your young assistant outside but let him or her do everything, even if mistakes are involved. Discuss any mistakes so that your child knows how to avoid them next time—and decide on that next time. Eventually, your son or daughter will be collecting eggs for you as if having done it for years.
2. Kitchen-Scrap Deliverer
Chickens adore kitchen scraps. Tomato butts, stale bread, old leftovers—your birds will devour them. Giving your birds your kitchen scraps not only supplements their diet but also reduces the amount of biomass in your garbage can. You can keep your scraps in something as simple as a lidded bucket or as fancy as a carbon-filtered countertop compost crock. The first step is to train your child—and the rest of your family—to scrape their plates into the container instead of automatically dumping their scraps into the trash. Explain to your little helper that the bucket needs to be emptied on a regular basis—once or twice a week—regardless of whether or not it is full. Longer than that and you’ll be starting lessons on in-home composting and decomposition.
Next, take your child out to the chicken run and demonstrate how to scatter the scraps evenly throughout the enclosure so that your birds all have a chance at the bits. This step might seem self-explanatory but, if you skip it, you risk your kids dashing out to the run, dumping the scraps into a messy pile over the fence and coming in claiming the task was done. I might just be speaking from experience here. If you wear a kitchen utility glove or a plastic shopping bag over your hand, be sure that your child does as well.
Once you’ve demonstrated scrap delivery for your son or daughter, set the date for his or her turn. If your child is older, you can watch through your kitchen window or you can accompany him or her to the run. Make sure to congratulate your child on a job well done, and, for a touch more responsibility, have him or her wash out the emptied container and set it back up to collect more scraps.
3. Coop Door Captain
Mornings can be chaotic in any household: adults getting ready for work, children getting ready for school and oh, wait, there are chickens to deal with, too! Your youngster can be a huge help in the morning by taking over the duties of releasing the chickens from their coops. Choose a weekend morning, when there is no pressure to rush to the classroom or the office. Bring your child out to your coop and show him or her how to unlock your coop’s pop door. Each coop is different, so this might involve opening a carabiner, unlocking a padlock, pulling a string or unlatching a hook. Show your child how to secure the pop door in an open position. This way, the door won’t come crashing down on an unsuspecting bird and your flock won’t be shut out of their coop all day. Once your chickens are out, have your child practice opening and closing the pop door until you and the child are confident it’s being done right. For the next few weekends, accompany your son or daughter outside and supervise him or her through the morning flock release, then let the child go solo a few times. When your youngster has independently, successfully and repeatedly released your birds, it’s time to move to weekday mornings. Unlike with egg collecting, avoid making a big deal about this. Treat it like a regular weekend release and your child will as well, but be sure to praise and offer thanks for a job well done.
As your child grows older and more responsible, he or she can take on other poultry-keeping tasks. Jaeson, now 14, fills the feeders and waterers in addition to helping me rake out soiled litter and put down fresh bedding. Bryce, who’s 11, just started soloing on the nighttime lock-up. Teaching our sons responsibility through poultry keeping: check!