By Dr. Joan Koster
Children naturally want to give to others. Research by Warneken and Tomasello (2006) demonstrated that children as young as eighteen months spontaneously helped adults pick up objects they dropped and opened doors for them. Follow up research in 2008 showed that these behaviors were not affected by rewarding the children and mirror behaviors were found in chimpanzees.
Today, too often, children's naturally willingness to help others is lost in the competitive nature of our educational system. Helping someone else or improving something in one's community will not get you a better grade on your state tests. Helping others is time-consuming in busy lives balancing jobs and family.
John Dewey and his contemporaries, such as Ellsworth Collings and William Kilpatrick, advocated for a project-based curriculum in which students were involved in solving real community problems. Collings in his 1927 book An Experiment with a Project Curriculum details a number of such projects including a study of the causes of typhoid fever in the school's students and development of prevention methods.
Perhaps one of the major problems in schools today is that children do not get to do things that involve real giving and real social action. As we approach 2015, perhaps we as parents and educators as a way to counteract the current trends in education, need to think about ways to make learning important for our students.
Let's make a New Year's resolution to make time for our children to have the opportunity to give to each other, to their families, to their community, and to the earth.
There are numerous resources for finding real projects for students to work on and apply their school learning. Here are a few:
35 Service Projects for Kids This list by KidWorldCitizen suggests activities children can get involved in their communities, such as decorating place mats for Meals on Wheels to collecting CDs and DVDs for KidFlicks which donates them to children's hospitals.
Pick a Project Big Hearted Families provides a variety of ideas and a place where you can post your ideas and share what you did.
The Kid's Guide to Service Projects by Barbara A. Lewis This book provides simple ways for children to get involved from cleaning up litter to testing water for lead.
But perhaps children say it best:
What project will you do with your children this year?
Warneken, F., B. Hare, A. P. Melis, D. Hanus, and M. Tomasello. 2007.
“Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children.”
PLoS Biology 5: 1414–1420.
Warneken, F., and M. Tomasello. 2006. “Altruistic Helping in Human
Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science 311: 1301–1303.
———. 2007. “Helping and Cooperation at 14 Months of Age.” Infancy 11:
———. 2008. “Extrinsic Rewards Undermine Altruistic Tendencies in
20-Month-Olds.” Developmental Psychology 44: 1785–1788.
———. 2012. “Parental Presence and Encouragement Do Not Influence
Helping in Young Children.” Infancy (Early View): 1–24