One of the most important messages of this series is that play is not a product; it’s a process. Let’s illustrate this with a backyard project that is great fun and will last over several seasons. Not only is this an inexpensive project, but it will allow children to discover ecological principles in a very direct and memorable fashion.
“Play is not a product; it’s a process.”
This project starts with straw bales. I’m using the term “straw” rather than “hay” because straw is generally the byproduct of gain production and has very few weed plants contained in it. Whereas hay is just field cuttings that can contain things like thistles. Wheat straw is common and best for this project. Rice straw decomposes very slowly, and the bales are not as durable, so it is less desirable.
For most of my life, I have been blessed with living in an agricultural area where trips to feed stores in my truck were weekly. Now that I live in town and regretfully no longer have my truck, I’ve begun to appreciate that straw bales may not be so easy to acquire. That said, rental pickups are inexpensive, and what could be more fun than a trip to the countryside to get a load of straw? Basic straw-bales range in sizes, from small “two-string” ones 18 in wide, by either 14 or 16 in high, and 32 to 48 in long. Three-string “commercial bales” are 21 in wide, by 16 in high, by 3 to 4 ft long. The small sizes are around 40 pounds, and the larger is about 60 pounds for regular wheat straw. You can get as many as 15 bales on a pickup, and that is more than you probably will want, but I always end up not getting more when I could.
If you are going to get more than 4 bales, you probably should invest in a pair of hay hooks for under $20. These hooks will come in handy for your pirate costume next Halloween.
Some commercial straw bales are wire tied, which are very durable. The rope tied bales may fall apart with rough handling, so it is good to use tie-down straps when moving them. These will also be easier to grip that the ties already on the bales. You can get a set of three 12 ft ties for under $40. You may want these anyway to time down your load.
I hope you are getting the picture of what your children will experiencing so far. A drive to the country, visiting a feed store, and all the organic smells and cool tools. Did I mention baby chickens? Yes, you can get bales delivered and offloaded. But that’s not the point. This excursion is the sort of experience they will never get in school and, unless you live in the countryside, they may never get at all.
Before you make this outing, it is a great idea to do some planning. How much space can you devote to this project? Where will it go? How do you want to stack up the bales to make a fort? These are all great questions and, depending on the age of your kids, they should come up with the answers. They can make maps of the yard, use Legos to model the fort. The object is for you to do as little as possible. Note: these bales will eventually get wet, and when they do, they will weigh a lot more so keep them dry as long as possible to maximize the ability to move them around. Don’t stop at just the bales. Add a tarp, some planks, flexible tubes, some lengths of PVC pipe.
Don’t be a Wet Bale
You should get several months of play before the bales get soggy. If you put them on pallets and trap them, you will get more use, but eventually, they will get too funky to be fun. So, what’s next? Strawbale gardens!
The idea of planting into straw bales is an increasingly popular way to create temporary garden beds, and there is lots of information online to guide you in this process. The first crop can be any of your regular vegetables. Many gardeners can get a whole season and multiple crops out of the bales. After multiple crops, the bales will get pretty fragile and hard to plant in. But wait, there’s more. You can grow mushrooms in them. You can gather up the used straw and put it into a bucket or one of the new fabric planters and raise potatoes.
Finally, you will have gotten to the point that what is left over is suitable only for compost and garden mulch, both of which are terrific resources and learning opportunities. Did I mention vermiculture? That’s the scientific name for growing worms. Adding a microscope function to your smartphone will allow the kids to take a deep look into the rich life that has taken root in those once-pristine straw bales.
This is a multi-year adventure for less than a few hundred bucks. The learning, skills, and memories acquired will last a lifetime. Who says that a pandemic has to lead to learning loss?