“If you think one small person can’t make a difference, try sleeping in a room with a mosquito.” This African proverb has often played in my head as I’ve thought about ways to encourage students to contribute to their communities. How can we ensure that community service is beneficial, meaningful and, most importantly, real for our children? Quite simply, start with what they know and love.
The concept of “community” can seem too big and too complicated to tackle. “Community service” then is often expressed through measures of tokenism, such as donating money. There’s nothing wrong with these acts; on the contrary, they have very definitive benefits. But the purpose behind the donation and any human connection can be easily lost or misunderstood by children.
The idea of “service”, or “service learning”, however, can be explained more easily as a “two-way street experience” that results in mutual benefit and learning for both parties. Born in the non-profit world, service learning has grown and been embraced by schools and other educational groups as a tool for deep and authentic learning at all ages.
Once your kids understand that serving others means both sides benefit, they’ll then be more ready to understand what a community is: a community might be your family, a play group, housing block, sports team, dog shelter or an international building project, and its definition can grow and shift with the development of the child. Since service learning is so strongly connected to community, the concept of community must first be made real for the child so they can move to finding ways to help that or another community.
My own passion for service and community activism stems from my parents and their connections to our school and city. I grew up going to rallies to save old-growth forests, making patches for hospice quilts with seniors, and stuffing food hampers for holiday deliveries with my family in our small Canadian city. While I don’t remember the exact organisations or even the details of the projects, the connections that I easily made with new people because of my naivety and openness as a child, made a deep and meaningful impact.
I also remember the conversations my family had about these experiences at the dinner table, which helped me solidify their importance to our values. When I was ten, my parents found an article in a parenting magazine, similar to this one, advertising a non-profit organisation for children – CISV International – dedicated to building global friendship through peace education and service-learning activities. They took me along, quite reluctantly I should add, to an informational meeting, where they were immediately struck by the confidence and self-assurance of two teenagers who spoke about their local and international experiences in the organisation. I was equally impressed, especially by the new kids I met from all over the city and how fun the activities were. How could something educational be that fun, I wondered.
My subsequent experiences as a participant in CISV programmes introduced me to service and service learning in subtle ways, like learning from the local police force about the impact of graffiti on local shops and business owners, and then helping to design and create an attractive mural to cover the graffiti and prevent future vandalism. Growing up with a mind towards service, volunteerism and its impact shaped the foundation of my current values and my professional role as a teacher and service learning coordinator at Hong Kong Academy, as well as my volunteer role in the education department of CISV International.
Keeping it real
As an educator, I am continually shifting hats between my idealistic service learning brain that says, “Tackle the big issues head on!”, and my slightly more practical teacher brain that asks, “Is it going to work, and how long will it take?” I have learned from my conversations and interactions with colleagues and students that meaningful service often comes about in the most subtle of ways. One project had us working to create an environmental action plan after learning about Hong Kong’s recycling processes and landfills, and then cleaning up two of the city’s beautiful beaches as part of a service learning project. Afterwards, one child talked to me about his reason for wanting to reduce paper usage at home and in school. He explained that he wanted to protect the trees because he really cared about them and it made him emotional to think that they could be harmed by wastefulness. Those are powerful ideas for any individual, but particularly for a third-culture child, who is new to Hong Kong and the local environment.
The cycle of first learning about and inquiring deeply into an important, relevant topic and then searching out meaningful service opportunities that will positively transform the topic in a small way allows students to personally and positively connect to other people and issues. Harvey Milk, a well-known American human rights activist during the 1960s and 1970s, said, “You’ve got to give them hope”, when asked about how he motivated people to continue to stand up for a cause. Children innately believe in hope and the possibility for change. We, as their mentors and supporters, have a responsibility to encourage this positive outlook to the future that will belong to them.
Children can be impacted by and begin to understand the idea of service at a young age – particularly the feelings and emotions connected to helping others wholeheartedly. Pre-schoolers and kindergarten-aged children understand the importance of their family community and how each member plays a different role in making the family happy and safe. This understanding can be related to other animal families and what they need to be safe and healthy, including protecting their home, which in turn creates an opportunity for service related to an animal ecosystem that is close to the child. In Hong Kong, there are many opportunities for these types of activities, both independently and through local and global organisations like the Save the Pink Dolphin campaign and the International Beach Clean-up initiatives.
Parents can support their child’s developing understanding of service through conversation and questioning to heighten engagement and excitement. The questions should begin with the tangible and then work towards the more abstract, such as, “Why are dolphins your favourite animal?”, and then, “What do dolphins need to be safe?”. Age-appropriate information books can support this process and encourage independence and self-discovery.
The next level
As children grow and gain more knowledge and life experience, they begin to understand local and global issues at more complex levels. Children will identify strongly with equality, fairness and respect. They may start to ask difficult questions about why some people have more or less and then feel strong emotions about these realities. This can be an ideal time to introduce a structure for categorising the issues and what can be done. I like to use the permaculture principles of “Earth Care,” “People Care,” and “Fair Share” to clarify the issue or issues at hand and support children in planning for meaningful service and action. For example, if a child shows concern for people in our city who do not have enough food or new clothes for Lunar New Year, they could be encouraged to connect this issue to the big idea of inequality or “Fair Share”, and then prompted to explore the factors that have led to this issue.
It’s at this developmental stage that it becomes clearer to students that issues are multi-faceted, complicated and often much bigger than we initially anticipate. However, it is also at this point that children begin to truly feel the impact of service learning and, ultimately, make the choice to be active local and global citizens, shaping their lives and the lives of those they meet.