The Benefits of Service Learning from an Early Age

I have always loved learning and believe that education is a community effort.  As an elementary teacher, I continually sought out service learning projects that enabled my students to become involved in the community while simultaneously complementing our classroom lessons and skills.  As a parent, I want my children to grow up with volunteering as an integral part of their lives.

My children and I began volunteering together in the spring of 2006 when my daughter was 3 ½ years old and my son was 15 months.   We volunteered as Living History Interpreters.  We dressed as homesteaders near Prineville, Oregon in 1880 and interacted with the public as they visited our homestead.  In this role, we utilized our knowledge of the region’s history to educate the public about the past.  With the exception of the winter months, we typically volunteered one day a week for approximately 5 hours.

We also worked with the Adopt-An-Animal program, whereby donors provided financial support for the care of the animals at the museum.  In turn, we sent the donor a thank you letter and a packet of information specific to the animal they selected which included an animal fact sheet, a certificate with a color photograph of the animal, a decal, and an activity sheet.

The children helped me by finding the necessary photographs and thereby learned to identify the names of our native wildlife.  They also learned about why the animals are in our care — all were unable to survive in the wild, typically because they were injured or became dependent on humans for food. Specific needs of the animals such as diet, habitat, and medical care provided great learning opportunities as well.  We typically worked 1-3 hours a week throughout the year.

While we no longer volunteer at the museum, I continue to involve the children in a variety of activities around our community.  We collect trash and pull non-native, invasive weeds along the river when we go for walks.  We donate canned food for the local food banks.  During the holiday season, we donate gifts for children in need.  Last spring, we began a garden to grow a few organic vegetables for our table.

Each service learning endeavor helps the children to think about what it means to take care of our community, animals, and the environment.

Service-learning is a teaching method that enriches learning by engaging students in meaningful service to their communities. Young people apply academic skills to solving real-world issues, linking established learning objectives with genuine needs. They lead the process, with adults as partners, applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills to concerns such as hunger, pollution, and diversity.

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what sort of volunteering made sense for young children. In selecting activities, I take into consideration the interests and concerns that each of my children have developed.

One of the least expected outcomes was recognizing how the children have discovered themselves.  When we started, my daughter was a little timid and slow to talk with adults. In a short time, she learned to interact with the staff and other volunteers as individuals, carrying on conversations and discussing her thoughts openly.  On the homestead, she was always eager to show visitors how to pump water for the garden and can easily identify the vegetables we grow.

It is already clear that their life experiences and these service learning opportunities have helped to ensure that they will be self-assured and outgoing.

Oregon Museum of Science & Industry :: Field Trip

A couple weeks ago, we the kiddos and I went to OMSI.  The kids had been since Buddy was just a baby … Sweetie only vaguely remembers it.  Presently there is a special exhibit on space exploration so it was the perfect opportunity.

Upon arrival, we spent an hour or so in the Life Science Hall … exploring hands-on activities that introduced the kids to nanotechnology.  During the second half of the twentieth century, scientists and engineers learned to observe, measure, and manipulate individual atoms and molecules. The areas of research related to this activity—known as nanoscience and nanotechnology—are leading to the creation of materials, processes, and technologies that many scientists believe will dramatically change our daily lives.

Their favorite exhibit was a large display of human fetuses whereby they could become more familiar with the different stages of human fetal development during all nine months of pregnancy.  One of my good friends is a doula and we’ve frequently talked about birth … the kids also request to hear their birth story regularly.

From there we spent time in the lab where visitors generally get the chance to hold and touch a variety of animals and insects.  This was not the case during our visit but we did get to observe.  I would have expected the kids to be intrigued by the animals we don’t have … snakes, a tarantula, a scorpion, walking sticks, turtles, etc. … but they spent most of the time observing the rats. Go figure.

They also enjoyed the earth science lab where they got their hands wet in the Watershed Lab. They created their own rivers and explored the microscopic world that supports us all.  In this area were several gallon jugs with varying amounts of sand to represent the different magnitudes of earthquakes.  We discussed the recent quakes and the damage that resulted in Haiti and Chile.

We were not able to get into the Paleontology Lab – much to our disappointment – as there was a special class taking place.  We did, however, get to explore the many exhibits on dinosaurs and prehistoric life.  This helped to make our previous studies more real for them.  Buddy still insists he would like to be a Paleontologist.

After we explored these permanent exhibits, we went down stairs to the OMNIMAX theater where we watched Hubble!  We then went to the planetarium for another show called Stars.  Both were very informative but went over Buddies head.  Sweetie really enjoyed them.

We concluded our trip exploring the temporary exhibit, Space: A Journey to Our Future.  This dynamic, multimedia exhibit looks back into the history of aeronautics and examines the many unknown questions of existence posed by future space exploration.  This was a lot of fun for me as it brought back many memories of the weeks I spent at Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena as participant of a NASA Education Workshop for teachers.

What surprised me was how much the kids had remembered from our previous reading – this always surprises me – images and models sparked their interest and thereby their narrations.  The kids most enjoyed the Gemini spacecraft replica.  They climbed aboard and announced, “I’m Buzz Aldrin!”  “I’m Neil Armstrong.  Mom you can be Mike Collins!”  Okay.

Paleo Lands Institute :: Field Trip

What a fabulous day! We departed home at 7 a.m. for the drive to Fossil. Despite a few setbacks, we arrived safe and sound just after 10 a.m. where we met with Will Boettner, the Executive Director of the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute. After introductions and a stop in the necessary or lu, we drove the short distance to Wheeler High School whereby we listened to a volunteer as she explained a little about the geology of the area and what we could expect to find.

The fossil beds were formed 30 million years ago when volcanic ash fell during the formation of the present day Western Cascade Range. The ash was washed into the lake basin along with leaves and other plant material, level after level piling up. The ash preserved the leaves long enough for impressions to form under the pressure of the overlying layers.
paleo lands instituteAbout 35 species of plants, most of them belonging to genera that are no longer native to the Pacific Northwest, are found there. The most common plants are alder, maple, beech, dawn redwood and pine in what appears to represent a deciduous hardwood forest. This implies, according to Will Boettner, that the climate at that time was much more moist and more temperate than is presently the case in the shrub steppe and savannah of today.

We spent about an hour ‘excavating’ in the shale behind the high school. Everyone was successful in finding fossils. I was delighted with how intrigued the kiddos were as they diligently picked up piece after piece of shale in hopes of finding a little treasure preserved between the layers. Prior to departing, we were able to browse the many fossil samples that have been found previously, including several amphibians and fish species.

We took a break for lunch … whereby Will shared more about his experiences, the geology of the John Day Basin, and about the community of Fossil. We then proceeded southwest to the Clarno Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds for a guided nature walk through a canyon.

It was a delightful walk. Everyone was entranced by one thing or another. We all had an opportunity to ask questions and explore the region more closely. We saw first hand how the layers of sediment had built up over millions of years and how the rocks formations had changed over time due to weathering. We talked about the impact man has had on the water table in just the past 150 years or so… changing the once temperate, deciduous forest to the dry scrub land of today (mostly Juniper and Sagebrush). Everyone walked away with a new awareness and appreciation of the natural history of our region.

Thank you to Will Boettner of Oregon Paleo Lands Institute for providing such a wonderful learning opportunity for us all.

“Do what you can
with what you have,
where you are.”

~ Theodore Roosevelt