The Logic of Starting Young

Long-lasting solutions seem to elude adults, which ultimately disappoints our children. Ironically, those who can help are the youngest, those who have the purest vision. Children adjust the adult lens toward purity of vision for the world.

Without the inclusion of our children, the problem solving we attempt as adults will be flawed. If we are to change direction toward infectious solution-making, we will need humility to see through their lens, believe in the simplicity of their logic, and endorse the significance of their presence. If we work with our youth, listen to them for guidance, and contribute the organizational skills we possess as adults, we can create a legacy of which we can be proud.

Children are capable of more than we allow. They are eager for inclusion in real-life activities, and they constitute a large segment of our population. Because we know that habits are formed early in life, we begin reading to children when they are very young. We can approach the area of service and community involvement in the same way to unlock our children’s potential to grow in understanding of problems and solutions and in developing interest in lifelong community service.

Thirteen years of K–12 education is long—especially from the perspective of youth. Test scores and grades are superficial status checks on the growth and well-being of our youth. The framework of their education, defined by previous generations and without the inclusion of their perspective or voice, remains firmly fixed as they grow in awareness of their constantly changing world in which they have as yet no inclusion.

During the last phase of their school experience, a significant number of young Americans drop out. Concern for this phenomenon has caused educators across the country to devise programs to keep these young adults engaged in their final years of schooling, but we are beginning too late in the process to address this issue. Something more fundamental is missing.

A K–12 national service learning model brings contrast and balance to the existing educational framework. If we begin at the beginning, in kindergarten, adding a critical missing ingredient during this highly formative period of growth, the result is altered; as in the presence of a catalyst, outcomes shift.

Perhaps high school dropout issues would fade away under the positive influence of real-life engagements further supported by community programs that mentor our youth. Perhaps students would look forward to the passage of leadership roles in their schools and in their communities. Perhaps they would feel better about school and the opportunity to make a difference. Perhaps their K–12 service journals would become a record of living history—of their personal contributions and value in the world, a meaningful record of their schooling they would keep and even pass on to the next generation. Perhaps they would take pride in accomplishments that surpass the efforts of their elders. Perhaps world tensions would begin to melt as youth follow the lead of project originators to support their peers in developing areas of the world. Perhaps habits of disregard for the environment would shift to truly sustainable processes.

When a service learning project originator spoke to a district-wide gathering of third graders in 2006, he referred to them as the class of 2016. Bringing this vantage point to the awareness of our youth strengthens purpose and identity. It also reminds us, as adults, of who they are, and who they will be.

Americans have been innovative pioneers from the beginning. Instead of continuing to apply the same standard measures of accomplishment that don’t capture the inspired interest of our youth, if we were to open the scope of education to involve them in real-life work with us, we might discover powerful gifts they have to bring to our world that exceed our ability to anticipate the outcomes.

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