Chickens on Patrol
Hens are the stars of the playground at a Texas elementary school.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Jodi Helmer
At Van Ruab Elementary School, in Boerne, Texas, lessons about science, engineering, math, and art often start in the chicken coop.
Principal Jamie Robinson added a flock of chickens to the schoolyard in 2019. He received a $1,000 grant to purchase supplies and enlisted the help of parents to assemble coops while students set up the brooder and tended to the chicks.
The little cluckers were an instant sensation. A video about the chickens went viral and the school fast became known as “the chicken school.” The biggest impact has been on the children.
Elementary school students of help with everything from cleaning the coops and filling feed and water buckets to building chicken swings and other enrichment items, earning them the nickname “chicken tenders.”
Having chickens on campus also allows teachers to emphasize hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.
“We squeezed an egg and the kids learned that you can squeeze an egg vertically without breaking but if you squeeze it from the sides, it breaks. It led to a lesson about how ovals are pretty strong and one kid pointed out that bridges often have circles underneath for strength and whether there was a connection,” Robinson recalls. “So, they’re seeing things in a different way because of the chickens. It’s an interesting ongoing science project.”
For most students, the schoolyard interactions are their first experiences with chickens. It helps them understand chicken biology. Kindergarten students help hatch eggs to learn about the lifecycle and older students observed that chickens fluff up their feathers to stay warm in the winter. It also provides a connection to their favorite foods.
Special needs students have formed extra special connections with the chickens.
Classes have learned to make treats and delight in delivering them to the flock. When the chickens gather around to enjoy the treats, children pet them. On the playground, Robinson says, chickens follow the students around like puppies, waiting to be held or petted.
Students with behavioral issues such as aggression and anxiety also find the chickens soothing and will go out into the playground to watch and interact with them to instill calm. One student bonded with a hen named Angel; the chicken comes when he calls.
Hens for Higher Education
The chickens in the flock have fluctuated. The fox broke into the henhouse and killed two chickens; neighbors dropped off chickens they no longer wanted. The current flock includes 12 chickens, including hens named Angel, Midnight, Henny, Penny, and Denise.
Teachers can sign up to help care for the flock and take turns taking home the eggs their playground poultry lay each week. Students love collecting eggs, especially when chickens like Angel lay them in various spots throughout the coop and schoolyard. Robinson jokes that it’s like a perpetual Easter egg hunt!
The chickens at Van Ruab Elementary School also help with composting, eating leftover fruits and vegetables from the cafeteria. Students even did an experiment to study which were their favorites.
“They are learning as they go and a lot of it is self-driven because they observe the chickens and wonder why they do the things they do,” Robinson says. “They just keep learning more and more and more.”
Students have learned about friendships and bullying from the chickens through lessons about chicken behavior and the pecking order. Midnight, named for her black feathers, is like a mother hen that steps in to break up fights. Robinson has no plans to add more chickens to the flock right now because the pecking order is well-established.
The chickens have provided another unexpected benefit. During cricket season, the hens were allowed to free range on school grounds to keep the insect population in check. It provided a pesticide-free option for controlling the pests. Shaking the mealworm bag brings a flock running from the playground back to their coop.
At the end of the school day, Robinson makes sure their feeder and waterer are full and locks the chickens in their coop for the night. He often goes to campus to check on the flock when school is not in session.
Three Clucks for Community Support
The success of the schoolyard coop at Van Ruab Elementary School has sparked interest at other schools. Robinson says the Hutto Independent School District in Hutto, Texas, plans to add coops at four of their schools; he is offering advice on getting the program up and running.
Robinson hopes more schools will consider adding poultry to their playgrounds. He encourages administrators to develop students from the beginning and get the community involved too.
Thanks to the popularity of the program, community members have offered to contribute treats and other supplies and Nutrena donated chicken feed; even students have saved up their allowances to buy toys for the coop. Robinson calls it a low-cost program with a big impact.
“The momentum has kept building and building [and] I laugh about how a small idea grew into something so big,” Robinson says. “It has turned out to be an iconic program and a great teaching tool that is helping kids learning many, many things.”
Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.
All photos by Jamie Robinson.