Community Service, Service-Learning: What's the Difference?

Posted by Debbie Gibbs on 4/22/15 2:30 PM

Last fall, I shared with you some thoughts and suggestions about how families can plant the seeds for children to grow into caring, engaged members of the community. Now, I’d like to focus on the important ways in which schools can help cultivate a child’s sense of responsibility, encouraging them to lend their knowledge and talents to the world around them.

At Lowell, we engage our children in “service-learning,” as well as in “community service.” I’m often asked to explain the difference. The two have much in common: service is central to both.

Community Service

Community service projects are often, though not always, shorter-lived—everything from a morning walk to raise funds for a particular charity to a weeklong food drive for the homeless. Community service thrives on passion and commitment, and typically does not require a great deal of special skill or knowledge. The end results can be deeply rewarding for children and nurture school spirit in the process, but the activities focus more on the charitable nature of giving and less on the educational aspects of a particular cause.


Service-learning moves beyond the notion of charity. By integrating lessons learned in the classroom with needs in the community, teachers can help students link their growing knowledge and skills to “real world” problems. Integrated into the classroom curriculum, service learning provides students with important opportunities to make vital connections between academic learning and society. Hands-on experience, problem solving, and reflection are vital parts of the process. At Lowell, service projects vary from year to year, depending on student interest and opportunities in the community. These examples of past projects highlight learning and service:

Pre-Primary School

In planning a service-learning experience for preschool age children, it is important to select a project young children can relate to. Since animals are a frequent topic of conversation and discussion in our Pre-Primary School classrooms, collecting old stuffed animals, corks, and towels to donate to the Washington Animal Rescue League (WARL) was a perfect fit.


During the months they collected items for WARL, children learned about taking care of animals, what veterinarians do, the role shelters play when pets don’t have homes, and how the donations would help animals in need. Children also spent a morning making dog biscuits for pets in the shelter. When the dramatic play area turned into a veterinarian’s office, the teachers knew the project had had a positive impact on the children and for WARL!

Elementary School

In conjunction with their math unit on area and perimeter, 5th graders designed and constructed quilts for Project Linus, which provides handmade blankets to children facing chronic illness. As the students designed their quilts, they delved into tessellations, symmetry, and asymmetry—topics not originally planned for the unit but which the students wanted to learn more about. They discovered that accurate measurement and careful sewing are required to ensure that the quilt pieces fit together—precision makes a noticeable difference in the end result!

The project also gave students a unique window into historical inquiry. The time and skill required to complete the hand quilting gave 5th graders a new understanding of what it meant for early Americans to make every piece of clothing and every blanket. When students studied the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the first textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, they could appreciate how profoundly society changed through industrialization.

But, the project would not have been complete without the human connection. Once the quilts were finished, students wrote heartfelt notes like the one below to the children undergoing medical treatment and fighting disease:

This quilt was made for you by two 5th graders in Washington, DC. While we were choosing the colors and cutting the fabric and sewing the pieces, we were thinking of you. We are sending you this blanket to give you courage and hope, and we are with you in spirit.

Middle School

The 8th grade week-long trip to Costa Rica is the capstone of Lowell’s service-learning program. Students live with local families in a rural community powered entirely by wind and collaborate on sustainability projects, such as building biochar stoves with local families, working on an organic coffee farm, and creating and maintaining organic gardens.


They improve their Spanish, expand their knowledge of the application of sustainable practices and of the engineering design process, and learn more about Costa Rican culture. Students grow tremendously as individuals, gaining confidence in their knowledge, skills, and ability to meet challenges. 

More Connections

Earlier this month, the National Service-Learning Conference, “More Powerful Together,” took place here in Washington, DC. The conference featured workshops, exhibits, speakers, and, appropriately, a day of service. Over 1,500 students (elementary through college age) and adults attended the conference, sharing ways to make a positive difference in the world. This event, organized by the National Youth Leadership Council, is just one indication of the energy behind this important work and the power of this approach to education and service. 

Children value their education all the more when they can use their knowledge to solve a tangible problem or directly assist someone in need. By reinforcing classroom lessons, service-learning enhances educational goals, while fostering an equally important aspiration: raising responsible and engaged citizens who have the skills to effect positive change. Who knows? In the process, children may even discover a new passion…possibly even a future career!  

For Educators

Interested in incorporating service-learning into your curriculum? Start with The Complete Guide to Service Learning: Proven, Practical Ways to Engage Students in Civic Responsibility, Academic Curriculum, & Social Action by Cathryn Berger Kaye, MA.

Looking for a school for your child?

Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning

Debbie Gibbs

Written by Debbie Gibbs

Debbie Gibbs is a former head of Lowell School. She earned her BA in theater arts from Pomona College, her BS in elementary education from the University of Minnesota, and her MA in educational technology from the University of San Francisco. Her career as a school administrator began when she became interim assistant director at The Blake Schools in Minneapolis, MN. She went on to become the head of upper school and assistant head for academic affairs at Marin Country Day School in California. She became Lowell's fourth head of school in 2007. She has served on the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS) and the editorial board of Independent School Magazine, a publication of the National Association of Independent Schools.