Professional Learning

Elementary Art and Service Learning Projects for Earth Day and Beyond

Simple crafty projects, plus some more meaty meaningful ones to support the environment.

April 22, 2011

"Valentine's Day is for suckers." I usually get a nasty look when I exercise my freedom of speech on heart day. Don't get me wrong, I'm romantic and sensitive -- I am a writer, remember? I just feel that a holiday celebrating love really shouldn't be a holiday at all. We should love each other all year, not just on February 14th. So, I'm against V-day and all its evil. No harm, no foul. Hallmark is not getting a dime out of me.

But what about Earth Day? In my 10 years of teaching I've done some pretty cool stuff on April 22, nothing earth-shattering or innovative, just an all day celebration of the Earth. Some cute ideas that I've fancied are below.

  • Brown Bag Challenge: Decorate a brown shopping bag and challenge each student to use it for a year. I've only had two students bring it back the following year to prove that it lasted. They received the grand prize: a high five and a sense of accomplishment and bond to the Earth.
  • Pinecone Bird Feeders: Smear pinecones (unscented of course—we're not trying to exterminate) with peanut butter and cover with seeds. Hang em' on a garden hook or tree and watch the birdies gorge. To keep those dastardly squirrels at bay, weave a Slinky all the way up the hook or string. Squirrels no likey the Slinky.
  • T-Shirts: I love t-shirts, own about two hundred right now. One year (just like this year) Earth Day fell on a Friday. I made and wore an environmental message t-shirt for each day of the week leading up to Earth Day. Then on Earth Day, we all created t-shirt designs with Powerpoint and printed them on decal paper. Yes, it was a lot of ironing and some money, but it was worth it.

The Transformer: Cute to Meaningful

It's important for kids to understand their impact on the planet, whether negative or positive. My activities are fine and dandy. They're exactly what I called them: cute. But cute is not going to cut it when we're trying to shape environmental citizens for the future. Valentine's Day forgives us for a yearlong bout with selfishness. It's just not right. The same goes for Earth Day. Littering and disrespect for the environment shouldn't be forgiven by making a t-shirt on April 22.

I've learned to change my thinking when the gut tingles. The gut never lies. No matter how many workshops attended or books read, if the gut isn't movin', I'm not ready to change. Fortunately, just as the gut was ready, my school's guidance counselor, Kelly Hansbury, introduced a service learning initiative that smoothed my transformation from one-day-shallow-activities to all-year-deep-meaningful-learning. So, I ditched the cute activities on Earth Day and headed towards yearlong, real, and meaningful environmental initiatives.

Service Learning is Service and Learning

A common mistake when spearheading a service-learning project is that the learning kind of falls by the wayside. My thoughts are that the teacher/facilitator views service learning as a way to get out of the books and into project mode. I understand that. However, the learning should be the undercurrent of the service. If the learning is absent, the service loses meaning and purpose. It turns into one of those "cute" activities. Balance is crucial between learning and service in order for kids feel really feel the impact. Maybe right in their chest, their heart.

Service learning doesn't need to take you across the planet or even across town. Actually, for starters with elementary-aged children, it really shouldn't leave school or home. Collecting money for the local animal shelter or children's hospital are great ideas, however, if the students never visit the patients or the boarded animals, most of the feeling, the humanity in the project, is lost or never felt in the first place. That's why I jumped right into two environmental service-learning projects that immerse students in knowledge, situations, and the human element of daily citizenship.

Bird Nesting Boxes

Learning: Students research local songbirds, the science of flight, and local habitats during the winter months in preparation for our spring visitors. We also investigate old nests and box conditions left over from the previous year. Most of the research is collaboratively prepared and shared via PBworks, a private online sharing network, or in journals. Social interaction, whether it be online or in person, is a valuable tool to encourage cognitive development and learning. It also allows the students to use the information at home and after the year has ended as well.

The Service: Bird nesting boxes are cleaned and repaired before spring. Then we enter the field with our research to identify songbirds and collect data on nests, eggs, and habitat properties. Through service learning, students discover the importance of supporting local songbird population because of their symbiotic relationship with humans. By offering birds nesting opportunities, bird population increases and mosquitoes decrease, which reduces the spread of diseases. Students also make plans to support birds in their backyard.

Paper Recycling Pickup

Learning: This project follows the same model as the bird-nesting box project. Heavy research throughout the year on trees, paper production, and consumption is performed and refined as we provide the service. During the learning, acting locally and at home is emphasized with mini projects and activities completed at home. Keeping data on paper products and trash found at home or in the neighborhood is matched to school data. We find patterns, ask questions, and brainstorm solutions. There are more questions than answers, but that's how citizens create social change.

The Service: Before students pick up the paper from classrooms and areas around the school, they need to introduce themselves to the teacher and class and explain the importance of paper recycling. I really love this section of the project because the students (paper techies) immediately feel responsible for keeping the class "in check" and informed about their "paper imprint" on the world. As problems arise in each classroom, the paper techie will remind the class and teacher to be mindful of the recycling rules through a speech or a letter. They may also create ideas to help remind the students to recycle on their own. For example, we've written poems and attached them to the recycling can.

I'm a fan of the environment; I admit it (If you haven't already guessed it). But if you're not into the hippie-granola-tree-hugging thing or you don't have the space to go environmental, here are a couple service learning projects that have happened in my school.

Ronald McDonald House: Their mission statement straight from their website: "Our Ronald McDonald House program provides a "home-away-from-home" for families so they can stay close by their hospitalized child at little or no cost. Our Houses are built on the simple idea that nothing else should matter when a family is focused on healing their child." Students support the RMH by collecting aluminum tabs from cans. The tabs are pure aluminum. When the tabs are delivered to the RMH, the organization holds them until the price of aluminum is up. Then they sell. Science and economic lessons stem from this project, as well a family and life-lessons when the students visit the house at the end of the project, which is usually occupied by kids battling illness and disease.

Food Bank of South Jersey (or any other Food Bank): Students study hunger and poverty, which is coupled with a bookmark sale. Students design bookmarks with a food theme. "Feed your brain" is just one example. Then they sell them at the annual book fair. A representative from the Food Bank visits the school to accept the donation from the sale of the bookmarks. Kim Dupper, third grade teacher who organizes the event, states that, "There are 87,000 people in South Jersey at risk of going hungry. Our small donation of $120 will provide 400 bags of groceries. This is a great opportunity to give back to the community."

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