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Extension through education programs with kids - who are we educating?

Jessica Connor1,2, Dr Margaret Hay2 and Professor Grahame Coleman2

1Department of Primary Industries (Victoria),, Email
Monash University, Department of Psychology, Email, Email


Given the power that children tend to hold in their own households, it is realistic to consider children as a very important target for programs designed to influence change both at home and in the wider community. Using animal welfare as the case study, this research investigated the possibility of using children to educate and influence parents living in locations where there are high proportions of small/lifestyle landholdings.

The research assessed whether responsible land and animal management messages delivered to students in the ‘Caring for Farm Animals’ education program were then transferred to parents. Following the delivery of the program, parents of participating students were surveyed to determine the extent and types of information transferred.

The specific objectives of the study were to determine:

    • Whether children transfer information relating to land and animal management issues to their parents and family;

    • Whether parents will change their behaviour as a result of learning new information from their children.

The majority (68 percent, n= 49) of parents became aware of the ‘Caring for Farm Animals’ program after it was conducted and 14 percent of parents reported that they would change their animal management practices due to discussion with their child and/or reading the written material that was sent home. Awareness of the Animal Welfare Codes of Practice increased from 35 percent of parents to 65 percent as a result of the program being conducted in schools.

Three key learnings: (1) Children can influence and educate their parents; (2) Children are a very relevant target audience for practice change in communities; and (3) Further research on this strategy will offer further insight into possibilities for practice change.


The motivations for researching an alternative communication strategy, a new tool for practice change, arose from limitations in communicating with small and lifestyle property managers1. These properties occupy a significant proportion of Victorian land, and many are concentrated in areas with a high percentage of threatened ecosystems (Hollier et al. 2002) therefore the potential impact on the landscape by this sector is quite high. Extension professionals have reported that the small/lifestyle farm sector are difficult to engage as land management is often prioritised behind external employment and family, and the landholders may lack motivation to develop land and animal management skills. Over the past three years there has been an average of 5,300 rural land sales per year in Victoria (DPI, 2004) indicating continual ‘new entrants’ that will need to be targeted to ensure appropriate land and animal management. Many of these new entrants have minimal experience in land management.

Targeting children for practice change in the community is not a new idea. Marketing campaigns, road safety and recycling programs have all successfully targeted children with the aim that parent behaviour will change as a result. ‘Results on domestic energy efficiency behaviour are better when targeted at children than when similar efforts are targeted at adults’ (Lindseth & Dyhr-Mikkelsen, 2003). Evidence of children educating and influencing families and the broader community is presented by programs including Waste Wise and the Eco-Walk Environmental Awareness Program for children in the Philippines (UNEP, 2002). The Waste Wise program, a Victorian initiative aimed at reducing the environmental impact of waste through working with children and school staff, has demonstrated practice change in school families and the broader community (Sharpey, 2000).

McNeal & Yeh (1997) acknowledge that much of the information regarding children’s influence on parental spending is anecdotal rather than empirical. They also state that marketing communications intended to influence household purchases can be enhanced if a significant amount is targeted towards children. This consumer behaviour research has demonstrated the value of considering children’s influence in families and thus society when targeting consumers.

This project investigates the strategy of using children to educate and influence parents about land management issues relevant to small/lifestyle landholders using animal welfare as the case study.


The specific objectives of the study were:

  • To determine whether children transfer information relating to land and animal management issues to their parents and family.
  • To determine whether parents will change their behaviour as a result of learning new information from their children.


The 2-hour ‘Caring for Farm Animals’ classroom program was developed in consultation with extension, research and education professionals, including teachers and DPI’s LandLearn2. ‘Caring for Farm Animals’covered four areas of animal care related to food, water, husbandry and animal environment. In an interactive program children were encouraged to tell their family about looking after farm animals and were given Animal Welfare Codes of Practice for sheep and for cattle to take home, along with the workbook they filled out during the program.


A total of 5 programs were conducted in four schools with mixed gender grade 5 and 6 children. The schools were chosen to participate based on certain characteristics:

  • Number of grade 5/6 children from a farm: this was investigated through a key contact in each school
  • Proximity to Melbourne: within approximately 150km of the Central Business District
  • Enterprises in the area: areas with relatively more animal farming than horticulture or viticulture

The schools involved (Moriac, Broadford, Cardinia and Teesdale Primary Schools) were reported to have from 35% to 50% of school children living on farms. This figure was estimated by a school contact at each school. The phone survey revealed a higher proportion of families with some type of farm or landholding.

The survey was conducted by phone on a date nominated by the parent between three and seven days after the program was conducted in the school. Parents were advised of the general topic of the survey on the consent form and explanatory letter, however were not told of the actual nature of the questions to avoid biasing their responses. Prior to the survey questions being asked, parents were advised that the survey would take less than 5 minutes.

There was a maximum of 21 questions asked, focussing on:

  • Whether there was any information transfer
  • Whether any information was new to the parent
  • Whether this information will result in the parent changing how they manage farm animals
  • Types of information transferred
  • Methods of information transfer
  • Information transfer to other family members
  • Awareness of Animal Welfare Codes of Practice
  • Experience with animals
  • Landholder demographics including property size, employment and animal types

There was an average response rate of 42% for parents agreeing to be involved in a phone survey after their child participated in the program. Most parents or carers surveyed were female.

The term ‘farm animal’ constituted any non-domestic pet that can be used for primary production. The survey focussed specifically on horses, cattle, sheep and poultry. The poultry category included ducks, geese, guinea fowl and pigeons. The ‘other’ category included goats and yabbies. Most families surveyed (67%) had at least one farm animal. Poultry and then horses, were the most common farm animals.

Frequencies and percentages were derived using the statistical program SPSS (vol-11), associations were tested using Pearson Correlation3. Qualitative data were recorded and are summarised below.


Information transfer

As shown by Table 1, 68% of parents became aware of the Caring for Farm Animals program after it was conducted through a discussion with their child and/or reading the written material that was sent home. Of the 68% of parents (n=49) who heard of the program, 67% of these parents had had a discussion with their child and/or 79.6% of parents had read the material sent home with the child (Figure 1).

Table 1. Information transfer to parents as a result of the program.

Information transfer


Percent (%)










Figure 1. How parents heard about the program.

Of the families that discussed the program, most parents (75%) had one discussion with their child in the pre-survey period. Around 19% discussed the program on two occasions, with 6% discussing the program on four occasions. Forty eight percent of parents reported spending over five minutes speaking with their child about the Caring for Farm Animals program or about farm animals in general after the program was conducted. Twenty four percent spent less than two minutes and 28% between two to five minutes. Water was the main point of discussion (frequency= 21). Most parents reported the discussion as quite general. In 32% of cases the parent was able to confirm that the child spoke about the Caring for Farm Animals program with other family members.

Codes of Practice

Of the parents surveyed, 65% were not aware of the existence of the Animal Welfare Codes of Practice prior to the program being conducted. Reported landholder awareness of the Codes of Practice was increased by 30%, from 35% to 65%, as a result of the program being conducted in schools (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Parental awareness of the Animal Welfare Codes of Practice both before and after the program.

Of the 39% of parents who heard about the Codes of Practice after the program was conducted, the majority (89%) heard about both the sheep and cattle Codes. Most (80%) of parents heard about the Codes of Practice through reading the written material sent home with their child.

Practice change in animal management behaviour

Seventy seven percent of parents that learnt new information as a result of the program conducted in their child’s school reported they would change their animal management practices. This equates to 14% of the whole sample of parents (n=72) that, as a result of the program conducted in the school, said that they will change their animal management practices. The intent to change practices does not always result in actual practice change, however actual practice change was not measured in this study.

Respondent demographics

Figure 3. Property size of families surveyed.

Forty percent of landholders lived on a big residential block of up to 2 hectares with 38% residing on more than 2 hectares (Figure 3). Others reporting a small residential block were much less likely to have any farm animals on the property (correlation significant = - 0.54, p< 0.05).

There was a significant correlation (0.01 level) between owning cattle and sheep. There was a relationship between property size and animal ownership. As property size increased there was a corresponding increase in ownership of cattle, sheep and/or horses (0.54) however there was a decrease in domestic pet ownership. In 52% of families there were 2 people working external to their own property (if they had one).

Parents reported level of experience with farm animals had a mean of 4.79 (SD 2.627), where 1 was no experience with farm animals and 10 was expert. More than half of parents surveyed (57%) reported 5 or less on the scale of experience with farm animals.

Anecdotal findings

Family discussion had resulted from the program, specifically reported by two parents. In one case the parents had a discussion and their child also spoke with three siblings regarding farm animals after the program. The parent noted that this was uncommon involvement as the siblings all have disabilities and do not often engage. The program had direct impacts on some families with four cases of parents or their children immediately checking animals’ water supplies or reviewing animal feed intake. One parent reported learning about tethering animals and humane destruction from the Codes of Practice, which was relevant to them. One parent reported that much of the information was not new however it had jogged their memory. Another parent had a guessing game about horses with their child. Although the information was not directly relevant to one family’s situation, another family reported that the program helped the child to better look after the family dogs. A general feeling by the researcher after hearing many parents comments was that the children found the Caring for Farm Animals program a very enjoyable experience.

Six parents in discussion with the researcher mentioned that the child is more likely to take longer than one week to speak of a school program or provide written material. One school also had ‘newsletter days’ on a Wednesday and parents expect to receive written material this day.

Parents reported that their children are more likely to reflect on information. They tend to discuss school activities one week after they were conducted, randomly mentioned over the following month, or when in a related context which jogs the child’s memory. One parent reported that their child needs to be prompted to discuss what they learn at school, this parent also reported that their child often discussed programs that are ongoing at their school. The target age group was thought to be too high by some parents, as they believed younger children are more likely to share what they learn at school.


Information transfer

There was information transfer regarding appropriate care of farm animals in the majority of cases. The information transfer occurred via parents reading the written material that was sent home with their child and/or having a discussion. The results indicate that children will talk about what they did at school with their parents; this occurred in 67% of cases.

Of the families that had a discussion the majority had only one discussion indicating that it is important to emphasise the correct message to students in a way that it is clear and easy for them to pass on to their families. Complex messages may not reach the parents at all or may be passed on incorrectly. Using this education strategy it is vital that messages that reach the children are clear and consistent to ensure the correct messages are transferred.

To optimise information transfer, written material should be sent home with the children. This allows parents to read more detailed information based on the target topic and facilitates discussion between parent, child and other family members. The results suggest children will be more likely to educate and influence their family on the topic when they are encouraged to be ambassadors and take the information home to ‘tell their family about it’. The interactive program design encouraged children’s interest as it was simple and relevant.

Water was the main specific point of discussion that parents reported. Children tended to emphasise the water requirements of animals as a result of the class program and parents remembered this specifically. This may have been more likely to stay in parent minds due to the drought conditions prevailing at the time, or children may have remembered this topic more easily for a number of reasons including the method of presentation and clear and concise nature of the message. The water component of the program was a guessing game and most children were very surprised by the amount of water an animal needs in a day.

Other family influences

There was some information transfer to immediate family members, other than the parent surveyed. Many parents were unsure whether communication about the program had reached other family members. Some parents commented that there had been discussion with the other parent, siblings or that further discussion between other family members was stimulated indicating that this communication strategy can engage others in the family, not just the parents.

Animal Welfare Codes of Practice

A survey by Queensland’s Department of Primary Industries (QDPI, 2001) found awareness of the Animal Welfare Codes of Practice amongst livestock producers to be 50 to 60%. The current survey including farming and non-farming families found awareness of the Animal Welfare Codes of Practice at 35% of surveyed parents. Although understandable, as animal production was generally not the primary business, 67% of families owned at least one farm animal. The program resulted in an increase in awareness of the Codes of Practice from 30% to 65% of all surveyed parents. This is a substantial increase considering the low cost of the program and that the change in awareness of children was not recorded. It is assumed that the children now have a greater awareness of the fact that guidelines exist for how to look after farm animals.

The majority of parents who learnt about the Codes of Practice as a result of the program did so through reading the written material sent home rather than a discussion with their child. This suggests that when conducting a program of this sort, written material is effective in increasing specific knowledge. The depth to which parents read the information was not ascertained but could be measured in future research. Information that reached parents through discussion tended to be simpler. The Animal Welfare Codes of Practice are a more complex message that children would therefore be less likely to deliver.

Most parents who heard about the Codes of Practice heard about both the cattle and sheep Codes indicating that either the child or parent took both brochures out of the school bag within the three to seven days after the program. It is important to recognise that some parents pointed out their children are likely to produce information up to a month after it is distributed at school therefore were recorded as not receiving the written material during the survey period.

Changes in parent behaviour

Of all the parents surveyed, 14% reported that they would change their animal management behaviour as a result of communication with their child and/or reading the written material sent home. That equates to 77% of those parents who reported learning new information changing their animal management as a result of the program. The implications are that, prior to the program, these respondents may not have understood all or part of the four basic areas of animal management covered in the program.


Children taking information home indicates the importance of developing strategies to increase information transfer. The information being made available through discussion or written material influenced some parents to state their intention to change their animal management behaviour. Based on consumer behaviour and environmental education literature (McNeal & Yeh, 1997; Strong, 1998; Mc Neal & Ji, 1999) it is clear that children can hold a high degree of influence in the home, and not only in the area of spending.

Additionally, parent values relating to what others think may influence them to act on the new knowledge. For example, in situations where they are not giving their animals sufficient water or providing shade, the parent probably already knows this is wrong, however will make greater efforts to comply due to influence of the child, and the risk of being exposed.

Recognising key drivers of change is a major step towards encouraging change to occur (Linehan, 2001). Research has indicated that the highest priority goals in farm families are generally family, personal and financial security (Barr & Cary, 2000). This further suggests that children can play a role in driving change on small/lifestyle properties. Linehan (2001) reported that for people to change, information delivery is not sufficient. Other factors are important including discontent with the present situation, a vision, a plan to change and the capability to change. Children’s influence could cause discontent by making the parents less comfortable with their present situation motivating them to improve land and stock management.

More people than ever live in the cities of Victoria and less in rural areas, resulting in greatly reduced contact with agriculture and general land management (Barr, 2002). Considering a lower exposure to how food and fibre is produced and a decreased understanding of natural resource use and farmers’ responsibilities, any knee-jerk reactions to agricultural issues are unlikely to be on an informed basis in the current situation. The urban and non-farming populations hold significant political and consumer power. This strategy of targeting children to reach parents creates practice change in the short and long term, offering greater outcomes firstly through transfer of information to parents and community, and secondly through educating future land managers, consumers and decision makers.

Farm demographics

The regions in which this project was based were identified as having a generally high proportion of small, lifestyle properties. The majority of landholders lived on a large residential block. Many properties smaller than two hectares (ie, the size of a large residential block) may still own some farm animals, for example poultry or one or two ruminants.

Although 38% resided on more than two hectares, in 51.7% of families there were two people employed external to their own property (if they had one). Government primary schools with a suitable proportion of children living on farms with the above characteristics were difficult to find. In many rural areas the families with children lived in town. This raises the question as to whether many small/lifestyle landowners have children at all.

Parents reported level of experience with farm animals followed a fairly normal distribution from ‘no experience’ to ‘very experienced’. Over half of the parents had less than ‘a moderate amount’ of experience (equal to five) with farm animals where on a scale one indicated ‘no experience’ and 10 was ‘extremely experienced’. Considering that 67% of families owned farm animals this indicates a lower level of experience amongst animal owners than might be expected. Because parents were self-reporting, parents may have underestimated this figure however the inference is that there is a number of people who own farm animals and are not confident in their experience with managing farm animals.


In accordance with related research, this strategy indicates that children can successfully deliver information to their parents and families based on a targeted topic. This study found that a third of parents intended to change their behaviour as a result of the program being conducted at their children’s school. This demonstrates that children can influence the decision-making processes of small/lifestyle landholders in rural Victoria.

The research also suggests further outcomes of the strategy such as increased community awareness and immediate and potentially lasting results on children’s knowledge and attitudes.

Further research in this area should investigate what enhances the information transfer from children to adults including demographics and program design. It is probable that there’s a difference between boys and girls and their propensity to pass on the information and influence parents. There will also be family factors affecting the chance of change in the family that might include number of children in the family, employment status, parent roles and gender differences down to specifics such as the topics relevance to the parent. To determine these factors, further research would ideally be completed with a greater number of participants and across Victoria. There should also be a more specific study of whether information transfer and influence from the child leads to behaviour change in practice.


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Accessed January 2005

1 Barr and Karunaratne (2002) define the small/lifestyle property sector as rural properties under 100 hectares with an Estimated Value of Agricultural Operations (EVAO) under $75,000 per year. This paper uses the term small/lifestyle property as a loose definition and for quantitative purposes the term will be applied to land between 2 and 100 hectares.

2 LandLearn is a Department of Primary Industries (Victoria) sustainable agriculture education program

3 Pearson correlation tests for the degree of linear correlation between two variables

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