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The Benefits of Service Learning

How Programs Educate & Inspire Children To Make a Difference



Eighth-grade students from Waldron Mercy Academy volunteer at Hayes Manor Retirement Residence

Service-learning programs provide opportunities for students to do good deeds in their communities. And students reap their own benefits when they help others. The Greater Good Science Center — an institute at the University of California, Berkeley that sponsors research on social and emotional well-being — reports that people who perform charitable acts increase their own happiness, making participation in a service-learning project a win-win. 

What is service learning?

Service learning requires students to use academic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs, according to the National Youth Leadership Council. It differs from community service in that the chosen activity integrates with the school’s academic curriculum and content, which allows students to reflect on their service experiences after they complete them.

For example, students picking up trash at a local park counts as community service. When those students follow up with teacher-led activities about ecology, pollution and solutions to the litter problem, the activity becomes service learning.

Benefits of service learning

According to generationOn, an international youth service organization that encourages young people to be the solution in their communities, service learning allows students to:

  • Develop skills in critical thinking, problem solving, leadership, decision making, collaboration and communication
  • Build positive relationships with community members
  • Connect their experiences to academic subjects
  • Develop a deeper understanding of themselves and empathy and respect for others
  • Apply their energy and creativity to community needs 
  • Increase public awareness of key social issues

Service-learning projects

Alex Segreti, 9, and her sister Carly, 6, take part in many service-learning opportunities at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion Station, PA. Whether they shop for holiday presents for less fortunate children or sing and play games with the residents of an assisted living facility, they learn about their community. Helping others teaches the girls from Glen Mills, PA important life lessons, says their mom Eileen Everly.

“The first year we took them to make pillowcases for Ryan’s Case for Smiles, Alex was 5 and Carly was 2, and even at such young ages they knew they were helping someone,” recalls Everly. 

Afterward, they discussed the practicalities of choosing fabric and sewing the cases and speculated about the how the children who might use the cases would feel to receive the gift.

Students in higher grades have opportunities for projects outside the school’s walls. Waldron Mercy Academy’s fifth through eighth graders visit an outreach partner two mornings a week for two hours. Seventh graders go to DePaul Catholic School in Philadelphia to mentor second graders in reading and math. 

“It’s like a big-buddy system,” says Theresa Gannon, director of the academy’s Middle School. “Our students love seeing the little one’s faces light up.” 

The importance of service learning

“It’s all about building relationships,” Gannon says. “Sometimes people are afraid of the unknown — of people who might be different from them — whether it be socio-economic or that they live in a different part of town. Our students get to experience that the people they spend time with are really not so different from themselves, their younger siblings or their grandparents.”

Beyond day-to-day experiences, service-learning programs offer students opportunities to help others in the summer or on school breaks, both at home and abroad. Whether they tutor students, help out in a homeless shelter or learn about water conservation, kids can help their communities while they learn about important issues.

“It’s putting our words into action,” says Barbara Scott, directory of technology at Waldron Mercy Academy. “To actually go out and experience what it is like to work with underserved populations allows you to stretch yourself. It’s a growing experience for the students personally and interpersonally.” 

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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