Celestial Farms, a farm-based daycare, gives kids more than a basic education: they learn farm chores, animal care and what real food is all about.
Not many child care centers start the day with farm chores, but at Celestial Farms, toddlers milk goats, gather eggs and weed the garden just after the sun rises.
The 8-acre preschool on a farm, just a few miles from Jacksonville, Florida’s, busy River City Marketplace, is a different world for the children who are lucky enough to go there.
“We have 20 kids total, and a waiting list that goes well beyond our capacity,” says owner Veronica Crider, adding she hopes to expand to allow more kids to come in the near future.
How a daycare on a farm came to be
Veronica, who has long worked in childcare, decided to open the home-based farm daycare when she moved to the farm in 2011. She also established nonprofit status for the farm, making it a rescue and rehab center for injured and neglected farm animals.
Who better to love on a one-eared miniature horse or a club-footed donkey than a “farm crew” made up of giddy toddlers?
“The kids feed the animals every day. They love to give them treats and even bring in food scraps from home,” Veronica says.
While traditional learning, such as the state-funded VPK program, are a part of the daycare’s offerings, the education these children receive goes much deeper. They learn how to plant, maintain and harvest a garden. They learn how to care for animals. And they learn what real food tastes like.
“When kids start out here, at first they want hot dogs, chicken nuggets. But that changes. They eat directly from the garden at least once a week. They eat salads and whole foods. Chicken and rice is one of their favorites.”
That part of their education is benefiting not only the kids, but also their parents.
“I was surprised when we started how uneducated the grown-ups were about food, too - people have no idea where food comes from or what’s really edible,” Veronica says.
Experts: Outdoor time is good for kids in so many ways
The farm-based daycare’s program is a refreshing change from the all-too-standard daycare model that involves mostly indoor time, often a lot of television and electronics, and not much exposure to nature. Researchers believe today’s children are indoors too much, missing vital lessons that will shape their thinking and understanding of the world into adulthood. In addition, outdoor time is shown to build stronger immune systems. And playing freely outdoors is believed to nurture a child’s brain development, socialization and problem solving skills. So by doing something as simple as keeping the children outside more, Veronica is arguably giving them a leg up on their future.
Nevertheless, setting up the farm-based childcare center was a challenge, since the Department of Children and Families wanted to ensure it was safe and sanitary for the children to be in the farm setting. Veronica took extra measures, such as installing several outdoor hand washing stations throughout the farm. One sink is next to the garden, where kids can not only wash up, but also clean and immediately eat whatever they pick.
“When they eat it right after they pick it, they connect where that food came from and remember that they grew it.”
Veronica also set up an outdoor library where kids can read or play if they opt out of farm chores - but they rarely do.
The children’s favorite task is collecting eggs, and harvesting pecans comes in at a close second.
“The children picked 40 pounds of pecans from our pecan trees this year. They love their pecan pie!” Veronica says.
Children learn to love animals in need
Perhaps the greatest lesson of all at the farm is empathy. The children take loving ownership of the rescue animals who live on the farm. They fuss over little Nugget, a dwarf miniature horse with four clubbed feet, one ear and a severe underbite.
“He was living with bigger horses. They were hurting him and he was hurting them,” Veronica recalls. “We took him right into our minivan and brought him home.”
Another resident of the farm, a goat named Gruff, had his legs broken and ears shredded by a violent child before he was rescued.
“He’s super-friendly, sweet as could be, so forgiving,” Veronica says, calling out to Gruff from the side of his fenced-in yard.
While Gruff and Nugget have physical complications, most of the animals the farm rescues come from people who purchased them as pets, not realizing how much responsibility they were.
“We have 15 rabbits, and that’s the story with most of them,” Veronica says. “Before you buy a pet, you need to know the requirements and expectations. Because you’re taking in a family member - this is someone’s life.”
The majority of animals are rehabbed at the farm and then placed in new homes. But the most severe cases, like Nugget and Gruff, are “lifers” at the farm, Veronica says.
The farm also has turkeys, sheep, pigs and chickens.
And its gardens go beyond feeding the kids: volunteers plant and harvest their own crops on the farm and nurture a garden set aside for local food pantries in addition to helping to care for the animals.
Veronica also offers classes for parents and hosts yoga workouts at the farm.
Always envisioning more ways to share her 8-acre paradise with others, she next plans to establish a program for senior citizens to come to the farm.
It seems the possibilities are endless for the farm that attracts and educates so many.
“Our days are long, but we love every minute of it,” Veronica says.
For more information:
Call 904.445.8812 or visit CelestialFarms.org
All photography by Jacksonville, Florida, photographer Debra Heuskin-Adloff.
Does this childcare on a farm story have you yearning for your own country life in Northeast Florida? View acreage for sale a short drive from Jacksonville.