When the farm becomes the school

Farm families with school-age children find ways to make schooling work

Safety is key for young children around a farm. The Maw family has had seat belts installed in all tractors if they didn’t come with one. Their kids wear safety vests, ear protection, workboots/shoes and gloves for their protection while helping with farming.
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Since COVID-19 cancelled school, farmers have been learning how to juggle schoolwork for their children and farm work at the same time.

While there’s no one route through the new normal for families with school-aged children, most are happy to have their farm as a backdrop for developing learning and fun activities for their stay-at-home students.

Why it matters: Ontario students are now out of school for the rest of the year. Running a business with children around can be trying for both parents and students.

Julie Maw farms with her husband Kyle, and owns a Maizex dealership near Courtright, Ont. She says keeping her three children, between the ages of three and eight busy is important.

She says her children were already busy and on the go, so they have proved adaptable to change.

“I would love to say we have a set schedule, but we don’t. We make it when it works. There is some quiet time when the kids wake up between 5:30 and six every morning and we try and get some homework done then.”

The Maw family focuses on teacher check-ins where they can. That has required the children to take their teachers’ video calls in the tractor cab in the field or in the truck cab, while their mother is loading seed onto the bulk truck.

“It’s a balance. It’s not always easy when you’re juggling working, farming, being a wife, and a teacher.”

The Maw family used some old Maizex field signs to lay out a soccer field as a math lesson. photo: Julie Maw

But the farm has also provided some interesting learning opportunities for the kids as they incorporate the farm into their schoolwork.

One of the children’s teachers was looking for her students to send her examples of shapes.

“She got a picture of a circle. That was a picture of a tractor tire. She got a triangle, which was a slow moving vehicle sign.”

As well, the seed dealership work provides a constant opportunity to practice math.

One day, they mapped out a soccer field using old Maizex field signs as the border.

Farm safety is a priority. The children wear seed gloves when helping deliver seed, and they have to wear safety vests when equipment is being moved, so they are highly visible.

Older children mean different challenges

Beth Mitchell operates a cash crop and finishing hog operation in North Middlesex, with her husband Mike and three children between the ages of 12 and 15.

The Mitchell family is in a different time of life than the Maw family and Beth Mitchell says that her children are at an age where they are independent.

Her husband is an Ontario Pork board member and having him home doing that work has been a balancing act for everyone.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs. When you are doing calls and Zoom meetings, that is challenging because everyone is in everyone’s face and no one is used to that,” says Mitchell.

As well, everyone working from home has shone a light on their limited resources.

“Even though you try to separate and do (work) at the most convenient times and places, it’s hard because (the kids) are also trying to do school work. We have limited devices and internet. That’s challenging, (along with) the noise and the interruptions that you’re not used to,” says Mitchell.

Graham Mitchell, 14, fixes teeth on the cultivator at his family’s farm near Parkhill. photo: Beth Mitchell

The three children are very independent learners, and Mitchell says they are strong in school, making it easy for them to set their own schedules.

“They generally take turns doing their homework in the morning and then help us with whatever. When it was really busy, they didn’t find it difficult to work around (the farm work). If we needed help for a couple hours they would do their homework after.”

Mitchell says the beginning of the school cancellation period was tough on her children, but as the weather improved their attitude has changed toward going back to school.

“As the jobs on the farm increased, the sense of productivity and having something to do that wasn’t in front of the computer all day helped their attitude. At this point, they wouldn’t want to go back. They like being able to help out and schedule their own time.”

Jeff Barlow grows crops with his family near Binbrook and lives off the farm making it easier for his three kids, aged 10 to 13, to separate the farm from their school work.

“The oldest likes to stay home and he’s pretty studious. The middle one usually comes to the farm and the youngest one is about half and half.”

The Barlow family is helping their kids stay on task by insisting school work is done before fun things like riding dirt bikes or going to the farm with their dad.

“At our place it’s a ‘you don’t get internet, you can’t watch YouTube or play Xbox if you don’t have any of your work done, or you can’t come to the farm’.”

Barlow is also taking this opportunity to teach his kids more life lessons around the farm.

“They’re learning the basics. I’m under the planter (and ask them), ‘can you fetch me a 13-millimetre wrench.’ They know where that is and how to put it back, very specific.”

The lack of structure is difficult on his kids though, says Barlow.

“As a parent you know they need that.”

Logan Maw, 8, outside the tractor and Hudson Maw, 2, do chores like cleaning windows on the tractor when not doing school work. They live near Courtright, Ont. Their parents are taking extra farm safety precautions while the children are home. photo: Julie Maw

“Growing up it sometimes felt like a disadvantage living on a farm when your friends could just walk to someone’s house or play street hockey with the kids on the street. COVID-19 has really shown how lucky we are to live on a farm with so many options and things to explore,” says Maw.

The Ontario government announced May 19 that kids will not be returning to school until after summer break to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

Tips from farm families

  • Find ways to keep children busy.
  • Be flexible, but try to make teacher check-in opportunities, even if they’re in the truck or tractor cab.
  • Rigid schedules are difficult to maintain, so don’t be afraid to be flexible.
  • Be patient, as few families are used to being together so much.
  • Limited internet can be frustrating and may require farm work and school work to be done at different times.
  • For children who would prefer to be farming, enforcing school work before farm fun can be an enticement.

About the author


Jennifer Glenney

Jennifer is a farm reporter who lives in Cayuga, Ontario.



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