Middle school students are old enough to be able to complete some of the same physical and intellectual tasks of older students, but they haven't yet developed the complicated life of sports, social life and jobs that limits older students' participation. At the same time, they still enjoy the child's sense of enthusiasm that fades as kids age. Middle school students make great participants in community service programs.
Early adolescents are just beginning to experience the joys and anxieties of independence. Design community projects to maximize kids' opportunities to accomplish and be recognized for things they have planned and executed by themselves. This means that adults need to be prepared to swallow their own pride of ownership and resist the urge to move in and take over. Many parents and teachers are so invested in the success of an activity that they end up telling kids what to do instead of asking them what they'd like to accomplish and how they'd like to do it. Middle school youth, however, are not ready to be let loose. Adults must commit to being present when their maturity and resourcefulness are needed, and to accompany children on projects.
Start Close to Home
Family trees are a common classroom project, teaching kids listening and interviewing skills, as well as helping them become familiar with their own personal histories. Enlarge family trees into a "sense of place" project for your community, working with local service groups and historical societies to create a display for city hall, the library or local post office that combines family histories and local events. Participate in local celebrations and festivals by volunteering to participate as a family or class in serving food or busing tables, or helping with set up or clean up. Research and assemble a "wall of honor" for school alums, native sons or daughters, or local veterans. By interacting with people in their family and community, children learn about the variety in humanity and about the traits we share in human communities. By participating---even if it's just as a dog-walker at the local animal shelter or flag-waver at a welcome-home event for local military---children become "shareholders" in the event and are more likely to participate and contribute as adults.
Help kids reach out to their community and the world by providing something they can see and show to others. Enlist other parents or adult relatives to help by being present when tasks are ambitious or children need backup adult presence. Facilitate projects to visit nursing homes, read to younger children, adopt a flower bed in a local park, or do yard work for senior citizens. Encourage kids to raise money for anything from playground equipment to veterans' memorials through car washes, bake sales or sales of services from snow shoveling to errand running. Help children understand the concept of consequences by creating and harvesting a community garden or organizing a canned food drive, and then volunteering in the local food pantry to see how their efforts lighten the burdens of others. Establish a "pen pal" relationship with another class somewhere in the world and find out how they participate in their community. Once kids have actually created something or made contact with those unlike themselves, they develop better appreciation for the efforts and needs of others.