Among the many classrooms of Manhattan Country School, one is much bigger than the rest—about 180 acres bigger. The working farm, located in the Catskills, three hours north of the school’s main Manhattan campus, is a key part of the school’s educational mission. Each year since 1966, when the K–8 school was founded, children who attend MCS have made three annual week-long trips to the farm, one in each season of the school year.

“The farm component was planned right from the start,” says John McDaniel, program director at the farm, which includes a barn, outbuildings, organic gardens, a textile studio and a maple syrup house. “The intention was less about the kids knowing where their food comes from than it was about honoring the work ethic that makes the world run and creating a true community where self-reliance is at the forefront.”

A Day at the Farm

Originally, there was no set curriculum, McDaniel tells Organic Connections. Students would arrive for their week-long stay and simply do whatever needed to be done. Now, there are areas of study that each student completes, covering textile weaving, cooking, gardening, and tapping maple trees for syrup production. But there’s still plenty of time for creative play, reflection and exploration.

Every student has daily chores, among them milking the cows and helping to cook the meals. The farmhouse holds about twenty kids during any one period, and each grade rotates in for a week at a time. There are also explorations further afield, such as visits to large-scale farms, field trips to study renewable energy, and extra classes in local history and musical traditions.

“I think the diversity of what we do is key,” explains McDaniel. “It’s not just a dairy farm, not just a vegetable farm. We produce all our own power via solar, and all our spinning and weaving is done with fleece from our sheep’s backs. These activities, especially with the older kids, tend to foster conversations about social inequity, or child labor. So we’re not only getting city kids out in the country, but giving their learning a real-world context. Kids are bombarded with so many points of view, but the whole idea of experiential education is that you really learn something by doing it.”