Animal Instincts

Photo by Andrew Schwartz
Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Chinchillas, hens, doves, reptiles—not your run-of-the-mill city dwellers, right? At the Upper East Side’s Art Farm in the City, however, these creatures are a constant presence, beloved by the children and families who experience this unique place.

Walking through the Art Farm’s front door, you enter a high-ceilinged room filled with animal toys, arts and crafts, and other educational tools, and it’s immediately clear that this is no ordinary farm. The Art Farm is a center for learning—cooking, music, animal care, and science.

Founded on the Upper East Side in 2002, the Art Farm in the City is an offshoot of the Art Farm in the Hamptons. Over the past 12 years, Manhattan’s Art Farm, which started out offering Mommy and Me programs and birthday parties, has grown into a unique space offering an array of classes and programs, as well as a petting zoo and summer camp. Valentina Van Hise, the Art Farm’s director, is an outgoing woman whose enthusiasm is contagious. At the farm, kids and parents stop to greet her, and she knows nearly all of them by name. After completing a BA in K-12 music education, Van Hise went from working at the Hamptons Art Farm one summer to collaborating with the owner, Mari Linnman, to bring the Farm to the city and develop its various curricula for children.

When asked if she ever thought she’d be running a farm with animals, Van Hise bursts into laughter.

“Nope—I was never an animal person. I was always a kid person—early childhood is a huge passion of mine,” Van Hise says. “My philosophy is learning through hands-on experiences, and the whole animal connection has been…not something I ever went to school for, but it’s just been really fun to partner together and make [this] a great place for people.”

This animal connection is a constant throughout the Farm’s robust programming. During the school year, the Farm boasts a variety of early childhood and toddler music classes that combine singing, movement, and learning about animals in addition to afterschool classes. The Farm recently began offering homeschool classes, such as a course on animal science for homeschooled children up to age 8.

“In [the homeschool] program, we do more in-depth things like weighing animals, looking at animal x-rays and different animal bones and skeletons, and caring for animals,” Van Hise elaborates.

When school’s out, a summer camp program is open for students, and sure to please animal-loving kiddos. “We walk over and swim at the 92Y, we have Super Soccer Stars, and also do all the music, art, and animal programs, which has really created a diverse program,” Van Hise says.

The Art Farm also has activities for practically any special occasion, such as eco-friendly birthday parties and a special Holiday Camp that runs during winter break. With the variety of the Art Farm in the City’s offerings, kids are sure to find something they love, and the farm is a place the whole family can enjoy together.

Past the store at the Art Farm’s entrance are the music room and kitchen. The music room is whimsically painted in bright colors illustrating a field and lake scene, and the kitchen looks as if it would be right at home in a country farmhouse. The real draw, however, is down a short flight of steps, where the petting zoo contains cages housing mice, hamsters, and chinchillas; tanks with various kinds of reptiles and insects, and shallow pools where turtles paddle around and lounge on rocks. Beyond the cages and tanks is an enclosure containing what appear to be some of the world’s (or at least the city’s) largest rabbits, in shades of gray, brown, and white. Beside them are guinea pigs, small by comparison. There is also a pen full of hens and a large cage filled with colorful birds and cooing doves.

“I love the chinchillas and Benny the tortoise, but also a leopard gecko, which was the first reptile I ever touched,” Van Hise says of her favorites.

The animal caretakers, Gabby Sachs and Jennifer Oi, bring their animal expertise from the Bronx Zoo, where they taught visitors about various animals and their care. Now, in addition to overseeing the care of the Farm’s animals, they bring critters to parties and schools as part of the Farm’s outreach program.

Upstairs, in the Farm Foodies Cooking Class, a group of kids ages 2-8 are making cauliflower mac and cheese under the instruction of the summer chef; during the school-year, the kitchen is manned by a French-trained pastry chef. The students learn about the cauliflower and the dish’s other healthy ingredients, as each child makes an individual portion in a small cup. As they add each ingredient, the kids have a chance to guess what it is and why they’re using it.

An emphasis on healthy eating is important, Van Hise explains. “A big part of our philosophy is whole foods—introducing a kid to vegetables and fruits,” she says. “That’s important to me as a parent as well.”

Next door in the music room is the Rocks, Smocks, and Animals class, where a group of toddlers sit in a circle on farm animal-printed mats, singing along to a guitar. They perform enthusiastic hand motions in a rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus,” and jump up when the animal of the day is brought in—a fluffy white rabbit. The rabbit calmly sits in each child’s lap as the students pet it and comb its fur, learning the proper way to handle animals.

“I really want the connection of people and animals to come across positively, for them to appreciate and understand what they’re doing,” Van Hise says. “In a city environment, it’s good for kids to come here and be in touch with animals and nature, and learn about it. It’s also good for adults, too, to learn new things. Seeing animals live and not in a storybook is nice. Kids come in and learn about nature and are a part of it. The down-to earth part of it is important—it’s not plastic, it’s not disposable, it’s here.”

 

For more on the Art Farm’s classes and birthdays, visit theartfarms.org.

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