A must read article if you have children!
Deciding to WWOOF with our two children was not nearly as nuanced as the year spent actually doing it. My husband and I, along with our 3 year old son and 1 year old daughter sought to learn more about agriculture to apply to a potential smallholding of our own, to work more integrated as a family, and to invest in cultural exchanges and travel in Portugal in a less consumptive manner.
It felt particularly relevant to take our children WWOOFing with us. We value Montessori and Waldorf ideas regarding the need for children to work to establish value, meaning, and a connection to nature. The established education systems for meeting these needs are contrived to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. What about children actually contributing, in small yet concrete ways: planting seeds, shelling beans, sorting fruits, sifting flour? Normalizing a life with few material objects, increasing the understanding and appreciation of the food process, enlarging worldviews and building relationships – these seemed like tremendously valuable reasons to WWOOF as a family.
With these things in mind, we
packed 3 large bags, one filled almost exclusively with children`s books and cloth nappys. The first farm we arrived at was, a disaster. In retrospect I am both surprised and grateful that we did not abandon WWOOFing forever. As the breadth of my WWOOFing experience has increased, I am convinced that this first situation did not fail because of personality differences, but because of our hosts poor mental health. As well as seeking to be our spiritual and life mentors, our hosts also wanted us to “be available” from 7.30 in the morning until 10.00 at night, forbade us to eat anything that was not from the garden, and several times throughout the day threatened us that we “owed” them. If we talked to our children while we worked, we were considered to be not working. By the end of the first week, we were timing the minutes we worked, discounting the water breaks or nappy changes.
By the end of the second week, it had obviously become abusive. This was the situation people warned us against, and I felt confused remembering my counter-arguments, I remembered WWOOFing a decade ago and how nice it was. Yet, as we were unsure of being a family of WWOOFers, we were eager to please. We were hungry, exhausted, stressed, and confused. We packed our things, and despite the command that we were neither to eat or go anywhere without permission, we ate and left.
This first farm proved to be
a very negative exception to the general rule. WWOOFing is about exchange, mutual benefit, and enjoyment. It is not a calculated capitalist equation of how much one can get while giving as little as possible. Of course, we all know WWOOFing is a cheaper way to travel, and a cheaper way for hosts to get labor, yet opening oneself to WWOOFing is being open to community, learning, trust, and fun. When one party is out to get all they can with disregard for the welfare of the other, then the situation does not work.
I am affirmed over and over – – that one of the unique aspects of WWOOFing is the near blind trust that humans are mostly good and have the capacity to be gracious enough to each other that they can peacefully exist in intimate proximity. We move from farm to farm, with our hosts trusting we will not take advantage of their hospitality, with us trusting we will not be exploited, and all parties offering grace and acceptance.
The challenges and joys of our WWOOFing have been richer than I could have anticipated. My children have connected the process from the seed to the plate, and consumption of meat is regularly joined with, “What type of animal is this?” and, “What part of the animal are we eating?” Abstract concepts such as water and electricity conservation have become concrete realities, as we have lived in situations where both water and electricity can run out. Watching the small hands shell soya, sort olives, or pat dirt over newly planted seeds, I smile in wonder at the evident satisfaction. My son takes pride in identifying the plants and the parts we eat, as well as mimicking the various languages of friends from across the globe.
While I have slowly given up my struggle against the heaps of mud in crammed living spaces through this winter, becoming acutely aware of the comforts I lived with at home, my children have experienced no such frustration over sheets made crusty with dried mud. Through their contentedness, I have become aware of my sense of entitlement which i have had to let go of – for my children the relationship to the seasons and the tiny living quarters are a normal experience.
While each WWOOF experience has greatly differed from every other, we have become grounded in certain travelling consistencies. These routines have made the time more enjoyable for us as a family, and have helped us to be good, efficient WWOOFers. Essentially, in such transience, if our children are stable, they are happy. If they are happy, then we are successful WWOOFers, and all parties are happy.
We have found that
stays of about one month are about the longest we have desired. Regardless of how children-friendly or hospitable our hosts are, we , being four, are still a lot. We have felt it important to keep from wearing out either party. Keeping mealtimes fairly consistent, even if it meant doing more self-catering than other WWOOFers has made it easier to move from one place to another while not disrupting our children´s biological rhythm. Frequently taking meals separately has also provided a very important time when our children can feel like they have our full attention. To ask our children to suddenly change their eating or sleeping dynamic on top of going to a new place with new people would be asking a lot of a child. We have found it better to eliminate some of the factors and facilitate a smoother time.
My daughter often naps within earshot of where we are working, yet children are sensitive to new smells and places, and she sleeps longer the days when she rides in our soft-framed baby backpack while we work. My son gave up naps shortly after starting to WWOOF, and thus, getting him to bed fairly early has become central to his good moods. Spending the bulk of ones day outside in the weather is exhausting for adults, and how much more so for a little body! When working in the day it is also advantageous to remember to bring snacks and water out to the field to tiring, avoidable trips to the kitchen. Bedtime routines have been another aspect we have kept consistent for our childrens sake. We have often found the four of us crammed into one double bed, sleeping at odd angles. On the one hand, keeping all small bodies snug and warm is important, yet, perhaps more significantly, our children may not be certain of where they wake up, but they can be certain of with whom.
The way we arrange our work is that one is the designated “focused worker” for the hour, day, whatever. The other is the distracted worker or focused parent. We work throughout the day, with the focused worker compensating for the inefficiency or not working of the focused parent. Working while the children play occurs a large part of the time. Afterall digging, dumping, and building are a child´s delight, and the more verbally engaged we are , the more our hands can be engaged in a project. To another adult, pretending to be a tractor-wheelbarrow might be silly, but for our children it makes a fun family time. Yet, children fall, need a snack, and so forth, and having the general clarity of the division of labor saves headaches and increases relaxation.
Hosts with children have very positive and negative implications to consider. If the children are a good match, things are off to a good start. What fun it is for children to have new friends, peers, the same size. How unnecessary language often is for play to arise. On the other hand, if the children are experienced as a very negative example, the situation is best quickly abandoned. Our children do not have the luxury of a large group of peers at present, so a large dose of negative modeling can have a big impact.
Even in the mos
t positive situation, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that our children are rushing into the other children´s space, and using their toys. At an age when sharing toys and space are difficult issues, we continue to wrestle with how to approach it all. What should we expect? Our children have a handful of precious toys, is it wrong, in situations with rougher children, to encourage them to leave them in our private space so they are not treated with the same roughness of the host children´s heaps of toys? Does this carry an implicit message about sharing? What is justice in this situation? Sensitivity towards all parties needs to be central.
Different parents have different beliefs and styles. In the atmosphere of the excitement of new people and toys, it is easy to excite a group of small workers. How seriously they take themselves, how focused they are, how pleased. And also, what fun it is to observe their happy mimicking as they tangibly alter the world, like their do parents in their day to day work.
Delightful as well is sharing the universal and different joys and trials of parenting, comparing and contrasting cultural and personal approaches to raising a family. Observing the family rituals of our hosts has enriched and informed our own family rituals. For WWOOF hosts with children we are also in a unique position of assistance, as who better knows how to assist one parent than another? Of course, a group of children often requires at least one adult around, and this can be a positive contribution to the group as a whole. If the kids are focused and happy, parents can be focused on other tasks at hand.
A necessity to having a good time WWOOFing as a family has been, for my husband and I, to be conscious of our own relationship. Our life has been much more integrated than in the past, and it is easy to let this take the place of taking care of our relationship. Being around each other does not necessarily mean being with each other, understanding what is going on with the other, or caring well for the other. Taking time to have a conversation not long after we arrive at a new farm is part of this consciousness. Simple things such as the landscape or how our children respond to our hosts, can make a large difference in the work dynamic. Without communication about to best go into our new work situation, it is easy to fall into patterns that neither of us might actually be happy with.
There have been latent assumptions, expectations, and roles that have been brought to light because of working so intimately with each other. Contrasted to life in a mainstream situation, the distractions that perpetuate subtle issues are all gone, and the issues that become clear require humility, openness, and love. Unlike some sort of revealing retreat, the insidious issues brought to light are also given the time needed for changes to take place. Though this is an uncomfortable process, what a benefit to our family dynamics as a whole: the opportunity to reflect and move in a direction we want to move in.
Because of the ebb and flow of children´s needs, we have found we work best when hosts provide us with clear expectations of concrete tasks. When the tasks are known in advance, then we can structure our day around it, rather than wasting good working time waiting for instruction, then getting instruction. We work more independently than most WWOOFers, and our social integration has generally been less than that of other WWOOFers. We have our own things going on, and also we need restful time in the evening.
We have also come to appreciate when hosts refrain from parental advice, as it is easy to forget that taking a child WWOOFing is a unique situation. Not to mention that we may not want to raise our children to be like their children, regardless of how lovely they find their children to be! Some hosts have been anxious to imply that our authority is weak for not forcing our children to sit down at their table during meals. What these hosts may forget is that five days prior, there may not have been a table, and three weeks forward, there may be no table once again.
The diversity of experiences has been provocative and wonderful, at the least. While it is common during the transitions of young adulthood to travel or seek out the diversity of the globe, the first many years of parenting are most often met with settling down and setting of roots. How I related to the world tangibly changed when I became a mother, thus the gifts and trials of WWOOFing are substantially different than they could have been prior to having a family. What I have seen and learned are different lessons than ever would have been possible at a different point in my life. And rather than shaping my years as a single person , to be contextualized in the realm of “before we had children…”, what we take forth from WWOOFing will play itself out in the fabric of our family life and home. The worldviews, rituals, relationships, and flexibility we have developed will inform our family for years to come.
Children are eager to
participate in a parents work, and desire to stay in the lines of the garden path. What we call work is so often the business of children: digging, dumping, watering, hammering, stacking. When I realize that many people we have encountered through WWOOFing are now dear friends, I wonder into the future. I imagine, and suspect, that our two young children will rekindle some of these special relationships in the future, when they experience the desire to engage in global diversity. We have, as a family, worked the soil, learned practical things, and formed a community of relationships we can seek our for guidance should we come across our own smallholding. Our hearts and minds have been sown as well. For our children, the seeds have been planted and we will see what grows, cultivating the richness of our time WWOOFing.
An annotated essential packing list for WWOOFers with children:
kid-sized work gloves
extra socks: they get wet, fast
child sized waterbottle
first-aid: fun band-aids, disinfectant, children´s pain-reliever, thermometer, tweezers
2 hats: 1 for sun, 1 for warmth
Watercolour paints or markers
Stickers or activity books
Paper (for obvious things, as well as paper airplanes!)
Manipulatives for dirt: digger, dump truck, bulldozer, etc
Books in your language
Light-weight long-sleeved shirts for the sun
Baby sling – even for children up to age 3 these are good for relieving weight in the event of a long walk at the end of the day
Soft-framed backpack/frontpack such as the Ergo Baby Carrier (www.ergobabycarrier.com
Cotton bags for each individual´s clothing and also separate ones for all socks undergarments. Keeps things easily sorted
Lots of cloth washcloths – for faces, hands, bums
15 or so cloth nappys if desired – if you already use cloth nappys, it is not difficult to carry on. We found it to be most convenient to use paper diapers at night, as our daughter regularly poops in the morning, thus reducing the workload of diapers. We also generally use paper diapers in the 2 days before we switch farms, thus giving a chance to get all diapers clean and dry
Bar of clothing soap for hand-washing