Matthew Brake was just a little boy when he discovered that learning can happen anywhere.
He still remembers his excitement on a morning decades ago when his parents invited his preschool class to visit Oakleigh Farm in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
Generations of Brake’s family have been caring for the land at Oakleigh since the 1800s. In the 1930s, his great-grandfather began milking Holstein cows.
Exploring the old dairy barn at Oakleigh was an adventure for Brake’s classmates — a chance to learn firsthand how cows are cared for, what they eat, and how they’re milked. Brake’s parents explained all the hard work that goes into dairy farming and answered questions from the wide-eyed 5-year-olds who had eagerly gathered in the farm’s milking parlor.
For these kids, the visit was like a real-life version of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — the beloved television series created just down the road in Pittsburgh. For over three decades, Fred Rogers brought viewers everywhere, showing them a factory where spoons were made or the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen.
Meeting cows, finding career paths
Today, Brake welcomes a new generation of visitors to the state-of-the-art farm where his cows spend their days. Although most visitors come in person, Brake — like Fred Rogers himself — welcomes kids via screens. Last spring, for example, he hosted a virtual learning event during the Remake Learning Days festival.
During this Dairy Deep Dive learning event, kids tuned in via Zoom to see the robotic systems that feed and milk the cows at Oakleigh and vacuum manure from the dairy barn floor.
“I just love giving tours to these different groups because everybody asks you different questions,” Brake says. “So one of the questions during the Remake Learning event was, ‘How many teeth does a cow have?’ And I didn’t know the answer.”
Another attendee on the Zoom call looked up the answer online, and the whole group — Brake included — learned the answer together. It was a perfect Remake Learning Days moment since the festival is about creating opportunities for adults and kids to learn alongside each other.
In the book When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids, coauthors Ryan Rydzewski and Gregg Behr note that learning, “can happen in any place at any time in any community, and Remake Learning Days honors and uplifts that learning.”
Kids and families are drawn to festivals like the one Brake hosted “because there’s no pressure. You don’t have to know or have the answers. You’re just learning and discovering, and you’re doing that with the people you care about,” Behr and Rydzewski write.
Brake loves the idea of “getting into classrooms of students from across the state and even states beyond,” he says, to share his work and help students discover a potential career.
The possibilities go beyond working as a dairy farmer. Kids in a computer class, Brake says, might not realize that a technologically advanced barn like his needs help from IT professionals and robotics experts.
“It’s kind of cool to open up their minds a little bit. Somebody might want to go be a dietitian. Well, for people or for cows?” Brake says. “You can go work at a nail salon doing manicures and pedicures, or you could trim your calf feet. There’s accountants, bankers, and everything that we rely on, as well.”
Brake, who welcomes thousands of students to his farm every year, loves to wonder how the visits can change a learner’s life. Have some of them begun discovering a career they might pursue? Or are they building a new appreciation for familiar items like milk and ice cream now that they’ve seen first-hand how a dairy is run?
“That’s what’s really cool to me,” Brake says. “You make this little ripple now whenever they’re in elementary school or middle school, and see where it goes from there.”
»Related: Elf on the Shelf gets busy around the farm and classroom
This article was submitted to AGDAILY by Melissa Rayworth.