How to Have a Successful Classroom Egg Hatch

Last year, we hatched 9 baby chicks in our first-grade classroom. If you’re thinking about doing a classroom egg hatch, I can’t recommend it enough! It was a HIGHLIGHT of our year. My husband and I ended up keeping all of the chickens after the hatch to have our own little backyard farm, and funnily enough 6 of the 9 chicks ended up being roosters. They decided to let us know they were roosters all at once one morning last summer—ha! Our poor neighbors.

Anyway, hatching baby chicks was quite the process, but, like all good projects, there were a ton of amazing opportunities for learning. I love project-based learning. When you take on bigger projects like this, it’s incredible how many topics end up being integrated. We were wrote about chicks, tracked the time it took for them to incubate, monitored the temperature in the incubator, and more!

When I searched for information about classroom egg hatches before we started our project, I found surprisingly little guidance about hatching eggs successfully in a classroom setting. So, I wanted to share what I learned, in the hope that it might be helpful for you in your class. As a fair warning, I am NOT an expert by any stretch, but I can share what worked for me and my students. There are TONS of valuable resources online about the science behind incubation (I'll share some with you, later on), so my primary focus will be on applying the egg hatching process to the classroom setting. I would also definitely recommend looking up your local farm supply store and asking the folks there for advice.

Before you even consider doing an egg hatch, decide what you will do with the chicks after they are hatched. Do you want them as pets? Does someone you know want to keep them? Every city has different rules about how many (if any) chickens you can have in your backyard, so it might be worth researching your local ordinances while you’re still in the decision-making process. Another option is to check and see if your local farm supply store would want to take them--our local store occasionally has space available for chicks, which they then resell. Whatever you decide, make sure you have a plan in place so the chicks hatch to find a good home awaiting them.

Next, you’ll need to track down supplies for your egg hatch. Again, I’m NOT an expert, but here are the supplies we purchased and successfully used for our classroom egg hatch:

1.      An incubatorThe style of incubator we used doesn’t come with an automatic egg turner, but it can fit one. If you don’t mind turning the eggs a few times a day, you don’t need an automatic egg turner, but you might consider investing in one for the convenience.

2.      Feeder and waterer for baby chicks. Chicks and chickens self-regulate when it comes to food, so you should always have food and fresh water available for them. These food and water containers worked well for the chicks for the first 3 weeks or so, but we had to upgrade to larger containers pretty quickly. Just something to keep in mind if you're planning to keep your chicks long-term.

3.      Medicated starter feedNot all chicken food is created equal—who knew? This starter feed apparently has everything baby chicks need to grow. Our chicks ate this food until they were about 5 months old, and then we switched them over to chicken food specifically formulated for laying chickens. This food is convenient to order online, but you may be able to find better prices at your local feed store if you buy larger quantities. 

4.      A heat lampAfter your remove your chicks from the incubator, you'll need to give them a heat source that replicates the warmth of a mother hen. When you set up the heat lamp for your chicks, watch what they do. If they scatter away from it, they're too warm and the lamp needs to be positioned a little higher. If they cuddle really close to each other under the lamp, they might need the lamp lowered a bit.  A heat lamp continues to be useful even after the chickens are grown, if you want to keep them laying during the winter months when days are shorter and colder.

5.      A brooder box with beddingThe chicks will need a cozy home where they have access to their heat lamp, food, and water. For the first few days after the chicks hatched, they all fit in a clear plastic bin like the one I provided a link to. We put bedding on the bottom so the chicks would have a soft place to sleep. Be warned, though--your chicks will outgrow this setup FAST. If you're keeping the chicks long-term, you'll want to come up with a more permanent solution (perhaps a larger wooden box in your garage?) until the chicks are big enough to live outside.

6.      Fertilized chicken eggs. There are lots of sellers on eBay who will mail fertilized chicken eggs to you. Read up on reviews of different sellers, and, as always, give your local feed store a call to ask for recommendations. (The folks at the feed store truly will become your new best friends.)

After you have all of your supplies and a box of fertilized eggs on their way to you in the mail, you'll want to prep your incubator. I found this website to be packed with really helpful information. I followed most of the recommendations, including giving the incubator 24 hours to adjust to the correct temperature BEFORE putting in the fertilized eggs. I put in the thermometer, set the temperature to the recommended setting, and had a chance to fine-tune things to avoid harming any of the eggs. Take plenty of time to read up on the specifics of incubation from the experts!

Now for the most important step of this whole process: prepare your kids. Hatching chicks sounds like a super cute activity, and the end result truly is magical, but the hatching process itself is actually pretty messy. It can be a little upsetting (even as an adult!) to watch a baby chick struggle to get out of an egg, and to know that you can't help it. It's also a little alarming to see chicks covered in wet, sticky stuff, instead of being all soft and fluffy. After the hatch, the incubator looks like a crime scene, with egg shell pieces scattered everywhere and the baby chicks flopping around clumsily. Without knowing what to expect and understanding the process ahead of time, watching an egg hatch could potentially be an upsetting experience for primary kiddos.

Thankfully, I found some GREAT resources to thoroughly prep the kids for what to expect when they watched their chicks hatch. First, we went through the lessons about oviparous animals in this unit by Cara Carroll and Abby Mullins:

Science of April 

While watching chicks come out of eggs looking wet and tired could have been alarming for the students, none of my kids were worried because they understood the details of that part of the process. Because of our lessons about the parts of an egg, my kids understood that the embryos were floating in albumen, which keeps the growing chicks safe. They also learned in-depth about the hard work of hatching out of an egg, and that the chicks would be very sleepy after they hatched. On the day of our egg hatch, the kids fully expected the chicks to be wet from albumen and to lay on the floor of the incubator for a while because they were exhausted. I can't recommend this level of preparation enough!

To keep the kids engaged while we waited for the eggs to hatch, we also kept journals for the week our chicks were due. 

We took time to study the life cycle of a chicken and the role that chickens play on a farm by working through my Complete Farm Unit. These activities helped build excitement and background knowledge while we waited for our chicks to arrive!

Hatching chicks in our classroom ended up being a much bigger learning experience than I ever imagined! The kids learned about science and life on the farm, as I expected, but they also learned some critical social skills about taking care of living things. It was so special to watch my students take ownership of that responsibility!

I decided to keep the length of the project to one week, for practical planning purposes in the classroom. I started off incubating the eggs at home, and then brought them into the classroom the week that I knew they would hatch. (Fun tip: if you put the eggs in on a Wednesday, they'll almost certainly hatch on a weekday because the eggs incubate for about 21 days.) I brought the incubator to school on a Monday, the eggs hatched on Tuesday and Wednesday of that week, and then the chicks stayed in their brooder box in the classroom on Thursday and Friday. After they hatched, I brought the chicks home in the brooder box every evening and brought them back to school the next morning.

If you decide to do an egg hatch with your kiddos, I'd love to hear about it!

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