On the Farm Camp I run in the Upper Hudson Valley, kids learn all about death, danger and hard work.
“Kids get a lot of freedom on the farm, but there’s one rule: everyone has to do chores.” (Photo by Larissa Phillips)

What City Kids Learn on My Farm

‘Hens don’t lay on demand. Tomatoes aren’t ripe in June. And animals don’t care about your feelings.’

Here are some things I have taught the kids who visit my farm: animals don’t care about your feelings, and sometimes we kill them to eat them. It doesn’t matter how desperately you want to find more eggs, the hens don’t lay on demand. Tomatoes aren’t ripe in June. The stalls aren’t going to clean themselves. Cuts, scrapes, and stings aren’t really a big deal. And there will always be poop. 

I’m often struck by what city kids don’t know when they turn up at the education program I run for families on our 15-acre hobby farm—Honey Hollow Farm—in the Upper Hudson Valley. As a longtime urbanite, I get it. I lived in Brooklyn for 15 years before my husband and I moved upstate in 2010 with our two young children and one goal: start a farm. We kept horses and ponies for fun and raised poultry and sheep—and sometimes pigs—for food.

It was hard. Slaughtering animals we’d raised since they were babies was wrenching. Breeding and birthing those babies was dicey, too. But these experiences toughened us up. Working with animals and the land and the seasons was grounding—and the best antidote to anxiety I’d ever found. And most of it was fun.  

I wanted to share this outlook with other families, even if it was just for a weekend. So at the start of the pandemic, I opened our guest cottage—and set up an informal curriculum to teach escaping urbanites what I’d learned.

I called it farm camp.

We host one family at a time, all through the year, in a renovated barn apartment overlooking the pony pasture. Most come for a week, some for a weekend. Every morning I’ll take a handful of kids, sometimes as young as three, through a two-hour, hands-on class on animal care, life, death, poop. All of them have to do some real farmwork.

There is a lot to learn. I don’t expect a child to know how long it takes for a chick to hatch, or why the roosters are always jumping on top of the hens. But I am often surprised by some of the straightforward things they don’t know how to do. Like how to pull a wagon around a corner, hold a shovel, climb over a gate, make a braid, or tie a knot.

Don’t get me wrong—I love offering explicit instructions on the most mundane tasks, then standing back and cheering when a kid does it independently. But two generations ago, these skills would have been common knowledge. For most of human history, the proportion of the world’s population living in cities was below 5 percent. It’s at 56 percent now. By the time today’s toddlers reach adulthood, it is expected that 80 percent of humans will live in urban areas.

Overprotected as they are, a lot of city kids are missing out on so many important encounters with material reality: with death or danger or manual labor. These encounters can be unpleasant, even painful. It’s understandable that we want to save our children from them. But they lose something essential when we do. 

“I don’t expect a child to know how long it takes for a chick to hatch.” (Photo by Larissa Phillips)

Among our guests is often one parent who grew up visiting their grandparents’ farm during the school holidays. “I suffered every summer, but it made me who I am,” a burly Polish dad told me—before saying he wanted his kids to have the same grueling experience. (His eight-year-old son got a stomachache in the first minute of shoveling manure and had to go inside to rest.) 

But other parents are a bit clueless. One June day, a dad brought his daughter and asked if I could replicate the ecstatic experience she’d had years ago when she’d been tasked with gathering every last cherry tomato before the first fall frost came. But tomatoes don’t ripen until early August, and besides, I am averse to offering finish-line experiences to children who haven’t taken the time to get there. Patience is unavoidable in farmwork.

So is death. At first I kept it from the visiting kids, discreetly texting my husband to remove a dead hen from the coop. And when parents asked what we do with our piglets when they get big, I would answer in grown-up code that went over the kids’ heads: “Freezer camp.”

But my own kids, now 20 and 25, had faced farm deaths and survived, so I came to the conclusion that the farm camp kids should do the same. Now I just tell them that the piglets will become bacon, and that our adorably fluffy dog is an assassin who kills the foxes that go after our chickens.

There’s also danger on the farm, often accompanied by pain. We’ve never had a serious injury, but countless kids have been stung, bitten, butted or rammed, shocked, pecked, tripped, stepped on, or tossed to the ground by a naughty pony. I don’t create these events; they’re a bonus feature. But some kids crave them, almost always boys. “Can we go in there?” they’ll ask about the pasture holding the ram I’ve just explained is aggressive. They beg to ride the pony that I’ve just said is a bit wild, or dare each other to touch the electric fence.

(Photo by Larissa Phillips)

It turns out kids aren’t as fragile as we’re often led to believe these days. I’m thinking of an eight-year-old girl who was very proud to recount her experience of falling off a pony. And there was one five-year-old who was attacked by a rooster, with the bird’s talons getting stuck in his overalls to the point it hung on him upside down, flapping wildly, until an adult could disentangle them. The child thought it was hilarious. (Probably because his father, who had grown up on a farm in Kansas, did too.)

I once gave an unruly seven-year-old a net and asked him to catch an aggressive rooster. His parents said the boy had trouble paying attention in school, but that weekend his concentration—in pursuit of a mildly dangerous creature—was absolute. He loved it.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned: children like being useful. They get a lot of freedom on the farm, but there’s one rule: everyone has to do chores. We use real tools and do real work. I teach them how to scrub a water trough, haul hay, muck a stall. They discover that manual labor is enjoyable, especially when you’re taking care of something other than yourself. Parents often tell me later that their children boast about the work they’ve accomplished.

(Photo by Larissa Phillips)

When I first started farm camp, I worried that the slow, repetitive rhythms would bore my young visitors, but the opposite was true. Kids love becoming familiar with the routine. Besides, there are always small dramas that keep them entertained: a rebel faction of lambs escaping the pasture who must be herded back in; a dead chipmunk needing to be fished out of a water trough; a random lost chick appearing out of nowhere.

By the second or third day, even the most awkward or sophisticated kids enjoy their newfound expertise. Children like becoming competent, even the ones who have to be cajoled into working. When they come for return visits, as so many do, they dive in with even more enthusiasm, eager to go through the motions of the work they now know so well. “We have to fill the waters, right?” they’ll say. Or, best of all: “When do we get to shovel the poop?”

Larissa Phillips lives on a farm in upstate New York. She is the founder of the Volunteer Literacy Project. Follow her on X @larissaphillip, and learn more about her farm on the Honey Hollow Farm Substack. 

How did you spend your childhood vacations? What are the lessons school simply can’t teach you? If you have an experience you’d like to share, write to

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