"It makes them so happy": 4th-Graders' reflections on intergenerational service learning.
Article Type:
Elementary school students (Training)
Student service (Management)
Children and adults (Educational aspects)
Fair, Cynthia D.
Davis, Ashley
Fischer, Virginia
Pub Date:
Name: Childhood Education Publisher: Association for Childhood Education International Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Family and marriage Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Association for Childhood Education International ISSN: 0009-4056
Date: Spring, 2011 Source Volume: 87 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 280 Personnel administration; 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Product Code: E197200 Students, Elementary
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Lisa: I've learned some people love to talk and work with you, but some people want to be left alone. Most everyone loves when you give them a picture. Others love to talk about your life and school and other stuff.

Casey: They like colorful pictures and like to socialize. I also learned that they really like having visitors. I think it's a great way to meet new people.

Joe: I learned that older people tend to talk about random stuff.

Riley: Some people are not very social.

The above statements are excerpts from essays written by 4th-grade children reflecting on their yearlong program of intergenerational service learning. Reflection is an integral component of effective service learning programs, regardless of the project focus (Eyler, 2002). The primary focus of the current project was to explore how younger children engaged in service learning can articulate the lessons learned from their experience through written and oral reflection practices. Do these children demonstrate a complex understanding of the elderly, going beyond stereotypes?

Children form relationships with the elderly in a variety of formal and informal contexts, including family and community settings. Intergenerational service learning offers a formal context through which positive relationships between young children and elderly populations can be forged through an array of activities (Hill, 1987). As children and elderly adults participate in meaningful interactions over a period of time, they build positive relationships that teach each group to view the world from another's perspective. Intergenerational service learning programs provide an opportunity for both the young and the elderly to debunk stereotypes and gain self-worth. Although a great deal of research focuses on the relationships forged during intergenerational service learning, especially between the elderly and high school, college, or graduate students (Dorfman & Underwood, 2006; Karasik & Wallingford, 2007), less is known about the effect that intergenerational service learning has on elementary school students.



Service learning in elementary schools has enormous potential, but seems to be underutilized in many areas of the United States. Research has shown that children who participate in school-initiated service learning enjoy numerous benefits. For example, schools that participate in service learning have seen a significant impact on students' engagement with the community and their social development, as well as on their sense of civic responsibility (Kielsmeier, Scales, Roehlkepartain, & Neal, 2004). Evidence suggests that service learning can improve other markers of academic achievement. Soslau and Yost (2007) found that the 5th-grade students who participated in an urban service learning project made greater gains on standardized tests, had fewer absences, and experienced fewer suspensions than children who did not participate in the project.

While it is estimated that 83% of K-12 grade students in the United States have opportunities to perform community service through school-based initiatives, only 30% of all K-12 students, and 22% of elementary school students, have the opportunity to engage specifically in service learning (Kielsmeier, Scales, Roehlkepartain, & Neal, 2004). Service learning is a subset of community service that is intentionally designed and includes the opportunity for reflection (Campus Compact, 2003). Service learning offers students the opportunity to learn about their community and come into contact with groups of people who may be of a different ethnicity, race, religion, or age than themselves, and to spend time processing these differences while making linkages to academic content. Fletcher (2007) cautions that children today may be unprepared to deal with diverse populations and the global economy. Related to intergenerational relationships, children face segregation from the older generation in both schools and the larger community, and must overcome stereotypes to be successful later in life.


The benefits of intergenerational service learning on elderly participants are well-documented. Research suggests that elders' involvement with the younger generation provides them with a feeling of belonging and gives them the opportunity to share their accumulated knowledge (Dryfoos & Taylor, 1999). Fujiwara et al. (2009) found that older adults engaged in intergenerational volunteer programs reported higher levels of self-rated health and increased social networks. Corbin (1998) found that allowing the elderly population to choose the activities in which to participate resulted in increased morale and decreased mortality rates. Through interactions with youth, the elderly also reported increases in self-esteem and a sense of responsibility and community (Dorfman & Underwood, 2006; Hayes, 2003; Hill, 1987; Sugi, 2009).

While much research focuses on the positive impact of intergenerational service learning on the elderly, less research is available examining the benefits to pre-adolescent children who participate in such programs. Furthermore, very little research examines reflection techniques for use with child participants (Kielsmeier et al., 2004). Bales, Eklund, and Siffin note that "researchers have not given children the opportunity to express, in their own words, how intergenerational programs have affected their attitudes toward and their relationships with the elderly" (2000, p. 678).

Research examining the effects of intergenerational service learning on children's attitudes toward the elderly presents a mixed picture. Middlecamp and Gross (2002) found that preschool children who attended an intergenerational child care center held views of the elderly that were similar to those of children who did not attend a similarly diverse center. Daily contact with the elderly did not appear to change the preschoolers' attitudes. Conversely, in a study of 4th- and 5th-graders who participated in intergenerational service learning with the elderly, 80% of 4th-graders and 69.4% of 5th-graders reported using positive descriptors of the elderly populations. Children developed meaningful relationships with their assigned elders, were disappointed after service concluded, and even actively sought further contact with their elders after the time of service concluded (Bales et al., 2000).

One of the greatest benefits for children who interact with elderly adults in a service learning capacity is the challenge to ageist attitudes (Hernandez & Gonzalez, 2008). As the nuclear family becomes dominant in Western culture, grandparents take a lesser role in the rearing of children, and often live separately from their children and grandchildren (Langer, 1999). As a result, children have little contact with relatives of other generations, and may develop stereotypes and prejudices against the elderly based on the media's depictions of older age groups. Elementary schoolchildren frequently perceive the elderly as "ugly," "mentally impaired," "angry," "smelly," and "mean"; yet, children themselves are also stereotyped unfavorably by the media and often feel on the fringes of society (Fletcher, 2007).


Intergenerational service learning is becoming increasingly more common across the United States, although thorough evaluation and assessment of this educational approach is far less common (Dorfman, Murty, Ingram, Evans, & Power, 2004). Reflection, done before and after service projects, can provide valuable outcome information and is the key difference between simply performing service and engaging in service learning (Celio & Durlak, 2009).

Through reflection, students form connections between the abstract content learned in the classroom and the concrete experience (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999). When working with a young population, it is important to keep the reflection activities age-appropriate. Although research papers, reflective journals, class presentations, and electronic reflections all have been found to be effective reflection tools for college-age students (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999), these techniques must be modified to suit younger children. Reflection allows students to "think outside the box," and this is a particularly critical skill to draw from when children work with an elderly population that perhaps differs from more familiar populations. The case study described here used reflection exercises with 4th-grade students in the context of their relationships with a group of older adults, with the specific goal of gaining understanding of the lessons learned by the younger group.


Students and Design

All of the 4th-graders in one class (within an independent kindergarten through 8th-grade school located in a mid-size city in the southeastern United States) participated in this project. The class consisted of 17 fourth-graders, 11 girls and 6 boys, all white, middle- to upper-middle class. Mean age was 10.3 years.

Goals of the Service Learning Project and Reflection Process

Students made monthly visits with the elderly residents at an assisted living facility. The goal of the visits was to satisfy the mission of the school, which seeks "to educate the whole child by extending its program beyond the purely academic to provide an educational experience that nourishes the mind, body, and spirit." The 4th-graders established relationships with the residents by working on a craft project, drawing pictures, or simply having conversations with their assigned elders.

Formal reflection exercises took place at the end of the academic year, following nine monthly visits. The students responded to the following essay prompts:

* What did you learn about older people during your service learning?

* What did you learn about yourself during your service learning?

We also held an in-class discussion consisting of open-ended questions, some of which were derived from a questionnaire known as CATE (Children's Attitudes Toward the Elderly) (Jantz, Seefeldt, Galper, & Serock, 1976).

* What can you tell me about older people?

* How do you feel about growing older?

* What were the best parts and not-so-best parts of your service learning?

* What advice do you have for the incoming 4th-grade class?


For the essays, two independent readers coded the responses. Following the traditions of qualitative analyses, the readers met frequently to discuss identified themes and come to consensus on the coding. Analysis began with a process of open coding, followed by the development of more discrete categories (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Primary themes were noted as the essays were coded (see Table 1).

What Students Learned About Others Responses indicated that students learned about what older people enjoy, that not all older people are alike, and that some are forgetful.

Enjoyment. Many students described the kinds of activities the elderly enjoy. One child wrote, "Most older people love to have fun and love to be around children." Students also noted that the elderly residents enjoyed artwork as well as talking about their childhood. For example, one child noted, "I learned that they love to tell story (sic) from when they were younger, or if they were in the army.... They love artwork."

Contrasts. The children also learned that not all older people are alike. One student wrote, "Most older people really don't like to be alone ... but they also sometimes like to be left alone." Another child explained, "Some of them remember more than the people that can't really remember." Finally, this 4th-grader noted, "When our class goes to service learning, some of the older people like to have the same partner every time we go. I also learned that they sometimes do and sometimes do not like to do crafts."

Forgetful Nature. In their essays, students described the "random and forgetful" nature of their elderly partners. For example, "Another thing I learned about them is they're very forgetful and get off track easily" and "They can remember something from a long time ago, but they can't remember breakfast." It was clear that this characteristic was occasionally unsettling for students, as indicated by the following quote: "Sometimes they come up with really weird questions, like 'Are you two girls going to take me to the bathroom?' I just didn't know what to do."

What Students Learned About Themselves

When asked what the students learned about themselves during their service learning experience, the majority of responses indicated that they discovered it simply feels good to help others.

Sense of Giving to the Community. One student noted, "I am also happy that I learned that I feel good when I make the residents happy." Another child wrote, "I learned that if I make pictures for them, they like it and that makes me feel good, because their rooms are plain and it brightens up their day" and "They can end up feeling like a good friend."

Growth and Insights. Students also identified areas of personal growth and insight. For example, one student noted, "[I learned] that I was not as shy as I am with kids my age" and "The first thing I learned was to have patience." Another student explained, "I learned a lot about myself and that I have to be patient with myself." Yet another child wrote, "Except most of all it taught me not to be so shy."

Reactions to the Elderly. Students also expressed both comfort and discomfort in working with the elderly. One student commented, "I am very comfortable around them and am willing to talk to them, open-minded." Another child wrote, "I found out that I was sort of comfortable with the old people." However, some 4th-graders learned that they still have a level of discomfort when it comes to interacting with the elderly population.

One 4th-grader remarked, "I usually feel uncomfortable around older people and nervous, because I'm scared [I might do] the wrong thing." Another child indicated, "I learned that I'm not very comfortable around older people and that I was shy around them."

Class Discussion

The 17 fourth-graders who participated in the monthly visits to the extended care facility also were involved in a class discussion. The first question posed to the class, "What can you tell me about old people?," resulted in an even division between positive and negative terms (see Table 2). Students used some words, such as "nice," "talkative," and "likes to be around children," that fell in the positive category. "Sometimes crazy," "smelly," and "forgetful" fell in the negative category.

Answers to the question "How do you feel about growing old?" showed a differentiation between being old and active and being old and confined to a facility. Many positive remarks were associated with growing old in general, such as "I want to stay active. It will be harder to move and I don't want to waste my time sitting around." When talk turned to being incapacitated and restricted to a facility, however, the children expressed negative feelings. As one student explained, "When I go to [the extended care facility], I don't want to get older, but when I see my grandfather, it's okay because he does lots of things." Another student commented, "When I'm old, I don't want to be in a retirement home. I just want to be in my own home."

Next, students were given the opportunity to share the best and worst aspects of their service learning experiences (see Table 3). The children clearly enjoyed the activities they did with their assigned elders, such as drawing pictures, making cards, and making paper snowflakes. One student eagerly replied, "The lady I was working with wanted me to draw a chicken and a deer. I did and then when I was finished, she kept showing it to everyone. It made me feel good." Analyses also indicated that the children enjoyed making the residents happy and that simply making them smile was one of the best parts of their visits. This can be seen in the comment of one student who said, "This one lady kept saying she didn't have a mother. And then I started talking to her and she smiled."

Students also had the opportunity to describe the worst, or "not-so-good," parts of visiting the elderly people. Answers to this question fell into four categories: 1) discomfort with physical aspects, 2) relationship concerns, 3) confusion of the residents, and 4) the environment of the facility. Some of the children noted that several of the elderly residents suffered from physical impairments. One student stated, "Some don't have legs. That's scary." Another child commented, "Some just lie in the chair and some are really disabled." Here is how one student described an interaction with a physically impaired resident: "I was with this lady. I got really scared one time because she kept wanting to get out of her chair and said, 'I want to get up.' I had to tell the nurse, who talked to her."

Other students were concerned about how they were perceived by the elderly participants. As one student stated, "One time I drew a picture, and later she said she didn't like it and tried to give it away. It made me feel bad." Another student described her worry over setting limits with the residents and the effect this may have on their relationship. "But when it comes to when I have to say no, I get uncomfortable, because I don't want to make them mad." The third category of responses concerned responding to the confusion of some of the elderly residents. For example, "Some forget what they say so fast and it's hard to talk and not get confused." Another child described, "They ask really weird questions. One kept asking, 'Why don't we wake up that old lady by tickling her under her chin?' I just tried to change the subject, but it was really hard because she kept coming back to it." Other children noted that sometimes the residents yelled: "There was a car backing up in the parking lot, and this lady kept screaming, 'Don't park here.'"

Finally, the environment of the facility was noted as a negative aspect. The class eagerly agreed that "the air smells like old people." One child suggested, "The air has vitamins in it and it doesn't smell good." This was the least frequently noted response, but the topic generated much energy during the class discussion.

The final question gave the students the chance to offer advice to future 4th-graders about service-learning projects in assisted living facilities for the elderly. Analyses indicate that the students' advice primarily addressed the "not so good parts" of their service learning experiences (see Table 4). Some advice focused on the students' discomfort with the physical aspects of the elderly. One student suggested, "If they don't have legs, don't say, 'Oooh, look at that person.'" Those students who were worried about how they were viewed in the eyes of the elderly advised future 4th-graders that "You just can't get your feelings hurt" and "Sometimes they yell your name across the room. Don't be embarrassed."

They had specific advice regarding the forgetfulness and randomness of the elderly that was commonly noted throughout the class discussion: "Be understanding. If someone says something random, just go with the flow" and "If they don't get it, don't keep on trying." Similarly, a student suggested, "Act like you know what they're saying." Finally, students recommended, "If there is a funny smell, don't say anything."


The study revealed that meaningful and genuine relationships developed between the 4th-graders and elderly residents. Unlike previous studies, which simply focused on the outcome of interactions between the generations, this study delved into how students came to their conclusions through reflection. It is clear that children were able to articulate lessons learned.

Findings indicated that students had a wealth of information they were eager to share, given the opportunity, and point to the importance of reflection. Through the process of written and oral reflection, students articulated new insights about themselves, found joy in helping others, and offered advice to the incoming class. Perhaps the most compelling finding is that students demonstrated a complex understanding of the elderly that transcended simplistic thinking. Students' comments indicate their comprehension that, just like themselves, the elderly have individual likes and dislikes, and that it is not possible to easily categorize "all older people."

In addition to building reflection, it is essential to help students develop strategies to handle discomfort and uncertainty that could arise when interacting with an elderly population. Clearly, some students will simply feel out of their depth when interacting with the elderly residents. Reflection and processing allow for many opportunities for shared problem solving. Indeed, through the class discussions, it was apparent that children found comfort in learning that other classmates experienced both anxiety and empathy when visiting the elderly. The advice-giving part of the discussion was especially energized. The students found meaning in developing helpful suggestions for the next year's class.

The children's service learning with the elderly residents of the assisted living facility was an educational experience that nourished the mind and the spirit, supporting the mission of the school. The opportunity to reflect on their work brought the students' service learning back into the classroom and helped them to identify the lessons learned. They are now in a position to be better members of the global society, as they learned that the elderly, just like others, should not be simplistically categorized or stereotyped.

Despite the promising findings of this project, several noteworthy limitations exist. First, the study involved a relatively small sample size and homogeneous group of children. Second, there is no account from the perspective of the elderly participants. Finally, the opportunity to conduct this research did not arrive until the end of the school year. Therefore, documentation of changes or reflections over time was not an option. Despite that limitation, the findings indicate that, with a little time, energy, and resources, students were able to benefit from reflection on their service learning. Until the essays were written and class discussion held, the students had not extensively discussed their experiences as a group. The classroom teacher indicated she was quite surprised at the students' insights.

Students should have the opportunity to reflect upon their service learning following each encounter. They should be encouraged to make linkages between the "service" aspect of the project and the "learning" aspect. This approach calls upon teachers and researchers to identify opportunities to make connections between service and academic content. For example, experiences with the elderly could easily be linked with social studies, literature, and health/science.

When reflection takes place after service, young children are able to make valuable connections between themselves and elderly people. Given the opportunity to reflect on their experiences, children can debunk ageist stereotypes, develop a more complex understanding of another human being, and create problem-solving strategies for both themselves and future groups of children. Finally, as evidenced by a quote from one 4th-grader's reflective essay, students can discover the joy of helping others: "It makes you feel phenomenal when they start to work with you and they enjoy what you are doing."

Authors' Note: The authors would like to thank the 4th-grade students and their intergenerational service learning partners who participated in the project. A special thanksto their teacher, Gayle Wannamaker, for believing in the importance of service learning and inviting us into her classroom.


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Jantz, R., Seefeldt, C., Galper, A., & Serock, K. (1976). The CATE: Children's Attitudes Toward the Elderly (Test manual): College Park, MD: University of Maryland, Center on Aging and the University of Maryland, College of Education.

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Cynthia D. Fair is Associate Professor and Chair of the Human Services Department, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina. Ashley Davis is Activities Coordinator, Twin Lakes Memory Care, Burlington, North Carolina. Virginia Fischer is an honors student, Elon University
Table 1

Analysis of Student Essays

Prompt: "What did you learn about older people while doing service

* What older people enjoy:



   Being around and talking to children

* Not all older people are alike:

Some older people don't like to be left alone, but some do

* Some are forgetful or "random"
Prompt: "What did you learn about yourself while doing service
* Enjoyed the satisfaction of helping others

* Noted personal growth and insight

   Learned not to be shy around different populations

   Learned to have patience

* Experienced feelings of both comfort and discomfort

Table 2

Words Used To Describe
the Elderly

* Positive

   Like to be around children
   Like to see/draw pictures
   Tell stories

* Negative

   Sometimes crazy
   Misunderstand conversation
   Like to be alone

Table 3

The Best and Worst Parts of
Visiting Older People

* Best

   Activities; e.g., arts and crafts
   Making residents happy

* Worst

   Discomfort with physical aspects
   Relationship concerns
   Confusion of the residents

Table 4

Advice to Incoming Class

* How to handle physical differences of the residents

* How to deal with difficult residents

- Relationship concerns

- Confusion

* Be prepared for the facility
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