Lifelong learning on Hairy Henry Care Farm in Ballylickey

When we think of education, what comes to our minds first is school, grinds, college, evening classes, distance learning – but we wouldn’t necessarily think of a farmyard as a place of learning for children and adults alike! 

Well, this makes Hairy Henry’s Care Farm a special place – a small farm full of educational opportunities – where children and adults are supported to learn, their own way, at their own pace, in an environment that is supportive and safe. 

Hairy Henry’s is a privately run social enterprise near Bantry, which offers therapy, as well as alternative educational experiences for people who learn differently. At the heart of this busy care farm is Sandra Schmid, a registered social worker and teacher with many years of experience of working with and supporting people who face challenges, whether these are educational, emotional, social, physical or developmental. 

Sandra’s educational sessions focus on engaging children in extra-curricular activities such as animal care, therapeutic riding, gardening, arts and crafts, and nature exploration. At first sight, these activities might not look like educational work. But often it’s exactly these hands-on tasks that help children grow in confidence and recognise their abilities and boost their motivation to learn. For example, children help count the lambs (numeracy), they assist in sharing out food rations according to instructions (literacy), they learn about animal health and plant life and natural processes on the farm (biology, chemistry, physics), and on top of this, they get immersed into an environment rich with social interaction and opportunities to learn to communicate effectively, regulate one’s emotions and learn about empathy and responsibility. Activities are planned out in small achievable steps, to boost children’s confidence and sense of purpose, and to give them positive experiences that leave them feel good about themselves. This usually has a significant impact on children achieving their potential in school and reaching their developmental milestones. 

Sandra also caters for teenager and adults – the focus on this work may lie on supporting persons to acquire new occupational skills and knowledge, to work on personal growth, self-esteem and goal setting towards mainstream education and employment.

Relationship based work

The big difference to mainstream educational services is that Sandra works in a close team with her animals – horses, donkeys, sheep, dogs, rabbit, hens to name a few – in building a trusting, non-judgemental relationship with the people who visit the farm for sessions. The animals offer their companionship without judgement, they invite everyone into their world to learn and discover – and in return, they ask for respect, responsibility and commitment. These can be eye-opening and confidence boosting experiences, in particular for people who had experiences of being judged by their abilities or experienced failure and rejection in a learning context. 

Learning through movement

Every individual learns differently. Some struggle with the conventional classroom type educational approach because it involves so much sitting still and listening – especially for children, this can be a real challenge.

At Hairy Henry’s, children are encouraged to move as much as they need to, in order to be able to focus on an activity. 

Relaxation and stress reduction

Especially for people whose stress levels are raised (as often found in people with ASD or ADHA, PTSD and Attachment Disorder), movement can be a first step to reduce stress. Stress is caused by an abundance of cortisol in one’s system, and this causes the brain to switch to its ‘fight or flight’ mode. In this state, concentrating and learning new things can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Physical movement helps reduce the cortisol levels in the body, and combined with relaxing sensory input – being rocked in the saddle by a horse, feeling the warmth and softness of an animal, being in a calm outdoor environment – this can lead to a much more relaxed state of mind, where learning becomes possible again.

Apart from individual work, Sandra also runs groups – she runs six-week training programmes for adults on farming skills and horse management, and she also runs different children’s groups, for example her ‘Stable Club’ sessions – an afterschool club where children learn about animal care, horse management, as well as wildlife. This club commences its autumn term on September 11, 2019.

As Sandra is registered with the Teaching Council, she also is available for Home Tuition hours under the Department of Education schemes for children on the Autism Spectrum.

Please see Sandra’s website for full details or contact her on 087 9389867.

WCP Staff

WCP Staff Writer

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