“From the time we were little children, we have all of us, at moments at least, cherished overwhelming desire to be of use in the great world, to play a conscious part of its progress.”

Jane Addams, Peace and Bread in Time of War

What a startling, yet very primitive statement about children’s desire to be truly of service to others.  By three or four years of age, most children begin to see beyond themselves and consider the needs and feelings of others. Marietta McCarty suggests in Little Big Minds that compassion for young children, “means sharing another’s feels with as little resistance or selfishness as possible.”   That’s a hard lesson for many adults to internalize, let alone for wee ones.  But it’s visible every day in a class of threes and fours – that glimmer of compassion where for just a nanosecond, they step out of themselves and into the heart and soul of another human being.  It’s entirely possibly that the social structure of a classroom enables this to happen more fully than it might at home or with family, but it’s a start to the amazing acts of compassion which enrich lives, even in young children. This seed of compassion can only grow when nurtured and tended to so that it can become strong enough to blossom on its own.

One of the big goals of any preschool program is independence in caring for one’s own belongings. Putting backpacks away, hanging coats, clearing snack are all examples. Some children master this quickly and consistently use them. Others master and use when it suits them. Others continue to work on skills and show some frustration.  Often it’s some generous and kind soul who approaches and says, “I pour your milk?” or “I help you…” as she eager tugs a winter coat off an arm, straights in and hangs the jacket.  The recipient of this act of compassion is at first surprised by the adept skill, but then breaks into a smile and says, “dat’s good help!”    As Valentine’s Day approaches, many of our young writers are internalizing the significance of writing to express their ideas and feelings.  matching names and photos of friends to put on envelopes which go into identically labeled mail boxes is a valuable cognitive task, but there are also deeper life lessons of expression compassion and friendship incorporated into these neophyte acts of service.  As our early birds arrive in the morning, they help us “wake up” the classroom by setting out materials, gathering snack and setting the table, watering plants, mixing paint.  Each of these actions affords the participants meaningful ways to care for the people and objects in their environment.  It may mean foregoing that impulse to build with blocks or look at book – true demonstrations of selflessness and a lack of resistance for preschoolers.

Other examples of being service in the great world, no matter how small one’s relative size include:

  • caring for a pet or plants at home or school
  • cheerfully completing housekeeping task – many of which may initially appear challenging to an adult, but with encouragement, young children are successful
  • emptying the paper recycling for an entire school each week
  • pairing with younger students to read, do puzzles or art work, or learn a new outdoor game.
  • collecting food and delivering to a local food pantry.
  • offering hot cocoa to the snow plow driver in the neighborhood or bringing the mail to a neighbor.

Each of these tasks may on the service seems small and inconsequential, but in fact, offer opportunities to develop habits of the heart which will last a life time.  Such small steps which allow young child to show empathy, compassion and care lead to a larger belief  and later, action.

Return next time  we’ll look at what and how middle school students gain from service learning. Meanwhile, consider posting examples of how compassion toward others and service are  demonstrated by the young children you know in the comments section below.

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