It’s more than serving – it’s learning

Service learning is more than volunteering to help your community or community service, it’s a high level of sustainable community investment every youth could be engaged in.

Youth collecting food items
Photo by National 4-H Council

Where do youth learn about service learning? Is it our educational systems responsibility to expose our youth to this opportunity? Is it our religious sector? How about community organizations?

Those are good questions and many may have different opinions to the answers, but hopefully all will agree that service learning is an important way for youth to become more civically engaged in their communities. 4-H offers an opportunity for youth to learn about service learning. To give youth a better understanding of how service learning focuses more on learning and community service focuses more on serving, read “What is the difference between community service and service learning?” from Michigan State University Extension.

Michigan 4-H youth and adults just completed a service learning session during a 4-H leadership event. Youth and adults all shared their community needs to create one group project. With some structure and guidance, youth identified opportunities to become more engaged in their communities to make a difference.

One project was titled, “Snow Day Survival Kit.” Youth were aware of children in their community who only receive balanced meals each day from the school cafeteria. They were concerned about what these children ate on days when school was cancelled. The youth brainstormed ideas how they could help. An integral part of service learning is reflection before the project starts, during the project and at the conclusion.

Reflective comments from the group, before the action step, were, “We feel bad for the kids who don’t have food, and we feel lucky that we do have food provided to us, but we feel ignorant because we hadn’t thought about this issue before.” The group decided to outline a plan on how they could help these hungry students. An important piece to this process it to plan ahead, so they decided to be “weather watchers” so survival kits could be available the day before a possible snow day for kids to take home with them. The group took action and put together kits with peanut butter, meat stick or protein bar, V-8, fruit cup, pretzel or crackers.

Their reflection during the project was, “We felt good that we were able to come up with a plan to help and felt like there was still so much that could be done.”

To continue with this project, the group would have to find items to purchase or collect donations. They were hoping to partner with local grocery stores, schools, churches, community centers and 4-H MSU Extension leaders.

The learning piece was finding out how many students would need this service, which organizations are willing to partner with these youth, and the financial responsibility of such a project.

Final reflections from the group were, “We are happy and excited that we can make a difference, shocked because there were a lot more factors involved and steps that we needed to go through that we didn’t realize.”

After just two hours of working together, five youth and one adult accomplished so much. Some words that come to mind included deeper understanding, greater compassion for others, energy to do something to help and service learning is a confidence building process.

According to Corporation for National & Community Service, 96% of high schools with service learning activities have maintained or increased the percentage of student participants in service learning activities over the past five years. What about elementary schools? The survey stated 51% of principals who reported no service-learning activities believe student are too young.

Michigan 4-H believes youth can learn at any age and we encourage our CloverBuds to participate in service learning as well as our older youth.

How can you engage youth in a service learning project in your community?

4-H grows service learning. If you would like to learn more about 4-H Youth Development, visit Michigan 4-H Community Service and Service Learning or contact me, leadership and civic engagement team member, at

Did you find this article useful?