By Dee Jepsen and Shoshanah Inwood
This spring and summer will be like no other in recent history during the COVID-19 outbreak. As you take stock of the goals you have for your farm this season, labor needs, and family dynamics, now is also the perfect time to create a plan for the role kids will have on the farm this season. As you formulate your plan, it will be important to take the age of your children and their farm interest into account. The following strategies and tips may be helpful as you come up with a plan for involving young family members in daily chores.
Designate safe play areas for toddlers and young children
A farm is a wonderful place to grow up. However, younger children also require more oversight. It will be helpful to have conversations as a family about how to keep kids safe while farm work is being done. Be open and honest about on-farm and off-farm childcare options.
If the children remain on the farm, consider who will be their childcare provider and what their play area boundaries will be. Don’t put children at risk by allowing them in the workspace of the farm operation. Because farm children grow up in these “familiar” areas, they often don’t recognize the dangers. Children who accompany adults to work on the farm are exposed to all the noise, dust and chemicals in that environment, as well as other mechanical and livestock hazards.
From a childcare point of view, it is challenging to manage the worksite while also keeping a watchful eye on children. There are pressures of the job that can sometimes take away from the focus of the adult. It is important to assign constant supervision to non-working adults or older siblings that are capable to provide monitoring of younger, active children.
If a grandparent or elderly family member is designated as the primary childcare provider — are they are still able and willing to watch children? For example, we know individuals over age 70 are most vulnerable to COVID-19 and that children may be potential carriers for this virus.
If you were planning on sending children to a childcare center or to camp, you have likely already checked their availability. In many rural communities, childcare options don’t always align their hours of operation with long hours of farm work. Families may also be concerned for the safety of their children if they do choose to utilize childcare centers. These can be stressful discussions and often there are no easy answers, but being honest and open for all childcare possibilities will help you in your decision making. It’s important to keep the safety of your children in mind, whether they remain on the farm or go to childcare during high peak work seasons.
Engage older children in safe work activities
If you have older children, a benefit of the COVID stay safe order and limited sports schedules may be to have additional farm — and yard — hands around to help with chores. Providing pre-teens and teenagers a space to learn new skills is part of growing into responsible adults. However, young workers lack experience; they are known to take risks, push equipment to the limits, can be easily distracted and are susceptible to peer pressure. Understanding your teen’s characteristics will help you be a better supervisor and guide their development. Oftentimes they won’t ask questions or take directives, so it is important to establish good safety habits early in their workforce career to last them a lifetime.
No matter their age, there are four important concepts to consider when involving children on the farm. These are being a good role model for safety, teaching specific behaviors, understanding child development limitations and matching chores to their abilities.
Be a good role model for children
When the entire family has respect for safety, they can foster collective good attitudes to promote skills to prevent and knowledge to recognize hazards. Farm environments can be unpredictable; children often learn the seriousness of workplace hazards through first-hand family experiences or hearing stories about how injuries occur. Learning about safe work practices is something children will eventually have to do when they enter the workforce, where safety conscience values will be a valued trait. Good adult role models re-enforce good workplace practices, including wearing a seatbelt, wearing proper PPE and following other safety recommendations.
Teach specifics, not generalities
Reminding children to “be careful” is not a clear message. If you want to develop a culture for safety on your farm, you need to be specific about what behavior you want to re-enforce. Use exact phrases to emphasize the safety risks: Stay away from livestock until an adult is present — don’t play in grain bins at any time — stay out of the yard when lawn mowers are in use. These phrases state the exact rules that you want followed and leave no question in young minds the action that is expected of them.
When assigning chores, it is first important to demonstrate the task and help young workers understand the steps. Watch them perform the task and correct any mistakes or misunderstandings they have. Then continue to check back often in case they have other questions.
Understand children’s capabilities
This season you may have to reframe your goals and how you define “success.” Rather than focus only on yield, expanding your definition of success to include the joy of your children learning and mastering farm skills and getting to know family members in a new way without the distractions of clubs and sports.
Keep yourself from getting too frustrated by remembering, “kids will be kids,” and know they will make mistakes. Assign chores according to your child’s age and stage of development. Parents often over-estimate their child’s skill and knowledge. As children become teens, and teens become young adults there is a progression of brain development, physical growth and maturity that have a role in decision making. Youth don’t always take responsibility for their actions, don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions and therefore can take unnecessary risks. Assigning tasks within their developmental capacity allows them a chance to prove themselves in a positive manner and feel they have contributed to the family.
Depending on the interests of children, some tasks can be very interesting or very boring. Assigning chores in small segments can help them keep their focus. If the job is perceived to be too big, you may lose their interest before the job is complete or horseplay sets in.
Matching equipment to the young workers ability
The tractor is the most hazardous agent on Ohio farms. Couple the tractor with other agricultural machinery, and fatality rates increase drastically.
Messages for young children should include the One Seat, One Rider rule. Tractors and lawn mowers are not passenger vehicles; there is one seat and it is for the operator. For tractor cabs with instructional seats, the second rider should wear a seatbelt.
When it is time to teach young operators about equipment operation, be sure the piece of equipment is in good condition. Tractors should have roll-over protective structures (ROPS) and lawn mowers should be equipped with automatic shut-off switches. Keeping shields in place and retrofitting old equipment with current safety devices will lower the risk for injuries.
Livestock and All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) are other leading causes of youth injuries on the farm. Providing supervision when children are handling livestock, riding horses or operating equipment is important. Another category, “Trips and Falls,” causes annual emergency room visits when children play at heights either in trees, in barns or jumping from elevated surfaces.
Farm work is inherently good for overall health and well-being
Living in the country has its benefits and allows youth to build skills, develop work ethic and gain an appreciation for agriculture. We encourage youth to develop these skills by working in a safe and nurturing environment. While there may be a lot of stresses pulling at your family, it’s helpful to remember that you can succeed when you set realistic, tangible goals and include an element of fun for the whole family.
Additional resources for designing “Safe Play” areas for your toddlers and young children can be found at: Cultivatesafety.org. Additional farm safety activity sheets can be found at our Ohio State Agricultural Safety & Health website: agsafety.osu.edu/resources.
Dee Jepsen is an Associate Professor for Agricultural Safety and Health and can be reached at Jepsen.firstname.lastname@example.org. Shoshanah Inwood is an Assistant Professor of Community, Food and Economic Development and can be reached at Inwood.email@example.com. This column is provided by the OSU Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering.