What's Summer? Hands-On Learning Time for Teens!

How to help adolescents get the most from volunteering

Posted Apr 30, 2012

Summer is just around the corner. While it’s a great time for kids to take a break from the pressures of homework and grades, it’s an even better time to bring on a different kind of learning—learning that connects the hands, head, and heart. Service-learning not only helps others but also generates impressive developmental benefits for teens.

Research shows that volunteering helps develop important skills for young people, including critical thinking, organizing, and planning. It helps them learn to collaborate and increases self-confidence. Volunteering plays a key role in helping teens form an identity, an essential role of adolescence.

Through hands-on work that benefits others, teens learn to critically think about the world around them—about social and environmental issues that bring purpose to their lives. They discover heart-felt connections that remain with them a lifetime, shaping their civic identities. Often, these volunteer jobs lead to future careers.

But not all volunteer jobs are created equal and finding the best experiences for teens can be challenging. Parents play an important role in helping children get the most from summer volunteer experiences. Now is the time to start discussing how your teen will spend a part of his or her summer!

What is Service-Learning?

Service-Learning often refers to an organized school curriculum that gives kids the opportunity to link what they learn in the classroom to real world situations in their communities. Teachers work with a variety of community agencies that agree to work with schools to provide rich learning opportunities for youth.

But service-learning need not be confined to the school year – or to classrooms. Opportunities abound for rich summer experiences where young people can come together to work for a cause, build relationships, and apply their skills in the real world. During the summer months, lots of organizations provide service learning experiences for youth. Some are in foreign countries but many exist in their own backyards.

Six Steps to a Meaningful Volunteer Experience

  1. Talk about the meaning of service and learning. Volunteering is not about the ability to put another job experience on a college resume. Parents help build character strengths in children by discussing service in ways that bring deeper meaning to life. When children do community service only as a route to college admission, they miss the deeper meaning of service.
  2. Discover your teen’s interests. It is important for children to choose their own activities, based on their own interests. Although you may have a great job for Billie through your friend at the local food bank, Billie may prefer to work outdoors building trails. Let go of what you think Billie should do and help facilitate a conversation that links your child’s interests to possible jobs in your community. Kids have a much greater capacity to develop purpose and initiative when they choose for themselves!

  3. Research jobs. Once you’ve determined your son or daughter’s interests, help them begin to research opportunities. The older they are, the more they can do this for themselves. Use the internet and personal networking to find organizations in your community. Several places to begin your research: Check out the websites VolunteenNationAll For Good, VolunteerSpot, and GenerationOn. Learn about what’s possible and what generates excitement for your child. There are many books, too, that list thousands of summer opportunities for kids and teenagers.

  4. Insist on a commitment. All jobs come with commitments, including volunteer positions. This is important for your teenager to learn. Talk about how much time they will spend and in what ways they will discuss and reflect on their experiences with parents or other adults in their life. Encourage teens to facilitate conversations with employers that provide feedback to them on how they are doing. Often, if this request is made at the beginning of the summer, supervisors are more than happy to take time to review a student’s performance and help them learn new skills. This is a good time to reassure your child that volunteering is a time to learn, that they don’t have to be perfect, and that they will learn from mistakes.

  5. Take an interest in your child’s learning. As your child volunteers, they are growing and learning in many ways. Find out how by asking open-ended questions about their day. Asking questions like, “Tell me about…,” “How did that impact you?” or “How did you handle that situation?” will help you engage in meaningful dialogue.

  6. Remember to praise your teenager for Who they are. When children take on jobs in their communities, parents have a tendency to praise them for all the great things they do! Research shows this type of praise becomes meaningless to kids. Community service develops skills and builds character strengths in young people. To help kids discover their identities, praise them for using their strengths and living their values rather than for the things they do.

Helping Youth Learn from Volunteering

Service can embrace a variety of volunteer jobs, including visiting elderly people, tutoring children, raising money for nonprofit organizations, working in community gardens, cleaning up public spaces, monitoring environmental sites, creating websites, filming video segments, and working in food banks. Perhaps your teen wants to start an entrepreneurial service venture! Encourage them!

Learning occurs as teens discuss their experiences with others, when they write about issues, and when they reflect on the meaning of their work. In practice, it’s often easier for learning to occur when it’s structured into a classroom process. But it’s also just as easy to approach service and learning together when parents take an interest in their child’s volunteer work and when young people connect with adults in their communities who have an interest in their development.

Building homes can lead to learning about why people are homeless. Working in food banks can lead to learning about poverty and hunger. Working on trails can lead to learning about the environment. But this kind of learning may not come naturally, particularly if kids view volunteering as just a way to pass the time during the summer and meet new friends. Critically thinking about service can be fostered by parents, mentors, and other adults. So get involved! Your child will be the beneficiary!

Photo credits: MeanestIndian; Enokson

©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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