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
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: BACKGROUND
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.
INTERGENERATIONAL SERVICE LEARNING
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
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).
IMPORTANCE OF REFLECTION
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
* 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
* 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
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
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
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
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
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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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
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
Words Used To Describe
Like to be around children
Like to see/draw pictures
Like to be alone
The Best and Worst Parts of
Visiting Older People
Activities; e.g., arts and crafts
Making residents happy
Discomfort with physical aspects
Confusion of the residents
Advice to Incoming Class
* How to handle physical differences of the residents
* How to deal with difficult residents
- Relationship concerns
* Be prepared for the facility