Service Learning in Elementary School

Service Learning in Elementary School

by Virginia Zamora Lopez
Learning Support teacher and ES Service Learning Coordinator


Give fish. 
Teach to fish. 
Make room at the river for all to fish. 
(Cipolle 51-2)

As a new teacher to YIS last school year, I remember wandering around campus soaking in the traces of learning I encountered. I was struck by a particular bulletin board dedicated to Service Learning; it had photos of students interacting with people in the community outside of school. Next to these photos there were some student quotes: “I learned that we can play with others even if we don’t speak the same language”, “I didn’t know that some kids don’t have family to play with them”.

On the same board there was a list of identified knowledge, skills, and dispositions that the students were developing through these experiences. This document revealed the intentional planning behind these service engagements. It became clear to me that Service Learning was embedded in the culture of YIS and I was inspired to take part in it. 

a man and 3 children standing around a large planetr planting flowers

ELC students helping to plant flowers in Harborview Park.

adult and student cleaning tombstones

Gr. 5 students cleaning tombstones in the Foreign Cemetary.

screenshot of a video conference call showing a picture of a handmade bag from a t-shirt

   Alumna Emma Rudy Srebnik speaks to ES students about the effects of the overuse of plastics.

As an educator, it is important for me to foster empathy, compassion, and agency in order to better understand ourselves, the people around us, and the ways in which we can take action and advocate for social justice and sustainability. Service Learning encompasses all of this while embracing the school's mission, Live, Learn, Lead.

After further exploration and engagement with service learning across the school, I gratefully took on the role of Service Learning Coordinator in the Elementary School. I have been collaborating closely with Ms. Sarah Urquart (Service Learning Coach) and grade-level teams to plan service learning opportunities that will enable and encourage students to apply and extend their knowledge and skills.

Even with new Covid-19 precautions, we have been able to continue our external partnership with the Chiku Center through our WonderFood Wednesday program. This has allowed all grade levels in the Elementary school to learn about people in the Yokohama area who do not share some of our same privileges and experience food insecurity. Grade 5 students have played a key role in advertising, collecting, sorting, and delivering the food to the Chiku Center on a weekly basis.

ES student, Kai, explains what Wonderfood Wednesdays are about.


Other grade levels in the Elementary School have engaged in different forms of service learning such as reflecting on lifestyle choices at home, interacting with expert guest speakers who advocate for change, partnering up with the Harbor View Park and the Yokohama Cemetery, as well as collaborating with High School Service Groups to learn about different social justice and environmental issues linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Through professional development with the International Baccalaureate Organization, I have found that many of our beliefs about service learning are confirmed by research in this field:

  • as individuals, we can develop a sense of personal efficacy through service learning
  • as a society, service learning can have a positive impact on reducing prejudice and stereotypes
  • service learning can have a positive impact on academic learning, career development and faculty learning (Verjee 4-5)

Furthermore, for service learning to achieve these desired outcomes, the community must play a central role in planning how systemic inequities are to be understood, challenged and reduced (Verjee 10).    

Through the diverse service learning engagements in the Elementary School, our students develop a caring disposition, allowing us to promote fairness and increase opportunity. As the program continues to grow, I am wondering how we might elevate it to develop a broader sense of social justice by examining root causes of injustice and work for systemic change. In other words, how we might continue to prepare students to take action for our community and with our community. This question is particularly relevant at this time as we plan our move to the new campus and some of our existing partnerships might be impacted by this change.

Presently, through the development of a vertical articulation of the Service Learning program from ELC to Grade 12, we have been challenged to expand our thinking and strengthen our practice by explicitly identifying developmentally appropriate learning outcomes which will prepare and inspire students to engage with our local and global community in a joint effort to achieve greater social and environmental justice.


Works Cited

Verjee, Begum. “Service-Learning: Charity-Based or Transformative?” Transformative Dialogues:
           Teaching & Learning Journal,
vol. 4, no. 2, Nov. 2010, pp. 1–13.


Cipolle, Susan Benigni. Service-Learning and Social Justice : Engaging Students in Social Change.
            Lanham, Md., Rowman & Littlefield, Cop, 2010.