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 NCPAD Monographs
National Center on Physical Activity & Disability (NCPAD)
   Outdoor Programs: Using Service Learning as an Educational Tool

by Ricardo Moraes, MS Coordinator, Challenge-Based Therapeutic Programs

  • A staff from the Department of Natural Resources explains facts about Eagles while six special education students have been quietly listening for the last 30 minutes.
  • Another group of students with low academic performance designs a trail accessible for people of all abilities.
  • Students that present behavior problems work as a team to build a garden at a local nursing home as their teacher stands amused.

This is a photo of students participating in a service learning project repairing trail surfaces to ensure access for trail users with disabilities.
Students participate in a service learning project repairing trail surfaces to ensure access for trail users with disabilities.
The above illustrations are real examples of successfully action-oriented projects used to support students with special needs to grow and achieve their potential.

Many students with behavior problems are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactive disorder. They present common characteristics such as lack of social skills, difficulty on concentrating for long periods of time, history of academic underachievement and struggle in conflict-resolution. Their high energy and lack of focus does not fit well with the idea of sitting through 50-minute periods of classroom learning. They usually cannot perform well in a regular classroom setting and they are commonly a source of distraction for peers and teachers. Solution-focused educators have found service learning projects can engage students with special needs in the learning process.

An Action Learning Approach

The Research Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990's has defined service-learning as "…both a program type and a philosophy of education. As a program type, service-learning includes myriad ways that students can perform meaningful service to their communities and to society while engaging in some form of reflection or study that is related to the service. As a philosophy of education, service-learning reflects the belief that education must be linked to social responsibility and that the most effective learning is active and connected to experience in some meaningful way."

Service projects are exciting, dynamic hands-on experiences that integrate multiple skills, empower students, focus on their strengths rather than their disabilities, and represent real-life challenges. Students have to use all their potential in conducting a systematic needs assessment, strategically planning, and implementing a project that is meaningful for them and their community. Having fun and developing social skills, students also engage in an academic, interdisciplinary journey. A project focused on protecting eagles' natural environment, for example, becomes a motivation to study biology, land management, math and science.

Service Learning projects can help students to:

  • Build responsibility.
  • Foster a sense of caring & giving.
  • Develop strategic planning & critical thinking.
  • Succeed in a team environment.
  • Engage in the learning process.

Service Learning in Practice

The following is a real example extracted from a program offered at Bradford Woods Outdoor Education and Leadership Center that utilizes service learning as part of the curriculum.

A group of middle-school students presenting emotional and behavior problems attend an alternative outdoor experiential education program one day a week for the entire school year. This group of students is presented with the concept of planning and implementing a service project. In the first instance the students react adversely to the idea of a service project. They react loudly by asking "why do we need to do things for others?" "What will we get from it?" Typical of their age, they are reluctant. However, when the purpose of the service project is further explored, students become engaged and quickly form a committee. Their first task is to go into their community and identify a project to improve the community quality of life.

The following week, one of the students explains that the local nursing home for retired citizens needs some improvements in their backyard. The group agrees that it is a good project based on their skills and interests. After a brainstorming session, they decide to design and install a flower garden. Their excitement with the idea is momentarily halted when one the students asks "where will we get the supplies? Who will pay for that?" The critical thinking process has just started and with support of the adult supervisor the students go back to school with the mission of researching organizations that could help.

A week later they achieve their next objective. They discover that there is an organization that sponsors youth groups in developing service projects. What a great find! The group starts feeling a sense of belonging, they are not alone and there are people out there that can give them support. But support does not always come easily. They now have to go through an application process in order to get the money they need. They organize themselves in different roles and each student is responsible for a part of the application: filling out forms, making a list of supplies, developing a budget, drawing a design for the flower garden, contacting the nursing home and getting a consent form, and deciding a name and date for the project. This process takes a while and the group finally has everything together, however the most important part of the application process is yet to come. The students have to present their proposal in front of committee members that will select and approve projects. This creates a wonderful experience for students to work on their presentation techniques and social skills, and to practice for similar situations they will face in the future. After a nerve-racking presentation the group is granted with the fund needed to implement the project. The students are filled with more feelings of accomplishment.

The project day arrives and the young group is anxious to do a good job and to meet the residents of the nursing home. As the day progresses on, residents start to come to observe the unusual movement. They start interacting with the students, telling them stories and sharing memories from their own youth. They also tell them how impressed and pleased they are with the job they are doing. At the end of the day residents and students engage in an unplanned game lead by one of the residents. Both, elders and youth have a tremendous amount of fun together. The students wash their tools, clean the area and take a last picture besides the new flower garden they have just built. On the way back to school pride is glowing from each of their faces. Already two girls from the class are making plans to go back during the summer to volunteer at the nursing home. Students close out the project with an essay about the experience which will be incorporated in their school portfolio.

Planning a Service Learning Project

There are important points to consider when planning for a successful service project:

  • Participants should conduct an assessment to find what project is needed in the community. This will provide a sense of usefulness and belonging.
  • Focus tasks on the strengths of participants creating a sense of competence for each student
  • Give students control over the project; they will develop a sense of power and potency.
  • Integrate the project into an interdisciplinary curriculum ensuring engaged learners.
  • Use reflection (i.e., journaling, group discussions; presentations). This can be vital to enhance the transferring of skills acquired in the project to real life for each student.

Bradford Woods Outdoor and Leadership Center
Indiana University
5040 St. Rd. 67 North
Martinsville, IN 46151
(765) 342-2915 (voice or tty)

The National Service-Learning Clearinghouse
1954 Buford Avenue, Room 460
St. Paul, MN 55108
1-800-808-SERVE (7378)

Youth as Resource - a program of United Way
P.O. Box 88409
Indianapolis, IN 46208-0409
317 920-2570

Giles Jr., Dwight, Ellen Porter Honnet and Sally Migliore. Research Agenda for Combining Service and Learning in the 1990's. Raleigh: National Society for Experiential Education, 1991.

About the Author
Ricardo Moraes, M.S. is the Coordinator of the Challenge-Based Therapeutic Programs at Bradford Woods, Indiana University. Ricardo has been involved in outdoor education for over eight years. His eclectic experience include working with youth development in USA and Brazil and facilitating outdoor challenge programs for a variety of populations including at-risk and adjudicated youth and their families

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