Turning community service for youth into service learning
We often hear about wonderful community service projects, particularly involving young people. However, we need to do a better job of distinguishing between service projects and service learning. Simply having youth participation does not automatically create service learning.
Imagine this scenario. Adults come in and tell the Better Neighborhood CDC Youth Group that today they are doing a service project to help start a local community garden.
When they arrive, half of the young people start chasing each other with trowels of dirt, while the others stand around talking and texting their friends. The adults yell at the kids to start picking up garbage and pulling weeds, and threaten them with loss of privileges if they don’t comply.
Now imagine another scenario. A month before the event, adults lead the Do-Gooder CDC Youth Group in a discussion of the meaning of community and have the kids investigate the issue of access to fresh fruits and vegetables in their neighborhood.
The young people speak with community members and learn about interest in starting a community garden. With adult guidance, the young people create a plan to help clear the lot and keep journals about their experiences.
When the day comes for everyone to work at the site, the young people assign themselves to teams for garbage pick-up and weeding and have a competition to see who can clear their section first.
After the work is done, the adults and kids have a celebration and are recognized for their efforts. They take time to share their journals and reflect on the meaning of participating in this service project.
Clearly the second scenario is an example of service learning—the first is just free labor.
Both scenarios result in a cleared plot for a community garden, but it’s hard to make the case that the young people had equivalent experiences. Clearly the second scenario is an example of service learning—the first is just free labor.
Community service projects can easily become service learning projects by adding some effort and intentionality around the process and the outcomes. In service projects, the focus is on the activity itself: cleaning a playground, painting a mural, staffing a food pantry, delivering holiday packages to home-bound seniors or any other defined volunteer project.
In service learning, the focus is on the people performing the activity and the process by which they identify the need, design the activity, complete the activity, and reflect on the experience and how they are affected as members of the community.
Out-of-School Time (OST) programs—including after-school, weekend and summer youth programs—offer ideal settings for community partners to create meaningful service learning activities.
Here are three excellent resources to help convert service projects into service learning opportunities for youth:
LISC’s National Education Initiatives staff is also available for technical assistance and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-455-9385.
Bonnie Rosenberg is the Senior Program Officer for LISC’s Education Initiatives.
Posted in Youth Development, Sports & Recreation, Thinking Out Loud