Lower School Families collect supplies and pack bags for Mott Haven Fridge

Service learning at Riverdale encompasses numerous community-based projects and local organizations, and even our youngest students – those in Pre K through grade 5 – are involved in hands-on grassroots activities both on and off campus. Whether it’s a book drive, a river clean-up day, or a meal-prep project, students of every grade at Lower School have the opportunity to make an impact.

All of these activities are grounded in learning objectives for Riverdale students. These objectives can include the development of agency, of empathy, and, ultimately, of purpose. For example, as Natasha Schmemann, Assistant Head of Lower School (PreK-2), explains, “When you embed something in purpose, the buy-in is greater on the part of the student, and the reason for a student wanting to participate becomes more meaningful. Even for our youngest students, purpose gives learning that additional traction; it becomes memorable and has the power of impact.”

Service learning is a long-established part of Lower School culture, says Erin Constabile, a 30-year teacher at Riverdale. “Service learning and stewardship are closely tied to our curriculum and are a tradition at Lower School.”

Lower School students decorate bags and ornaments for Mott Haven Fridge

Parents and families can play an active role in service learning projects, too. According to Lynn Bakst P’30, P’32, one of three Parents Association service learning co-chairs at the Lower School, their committee began with a brainstorming session early in the year to find out what organizations and causes were particularly important to families. Several were identified and contacted, and projects were organized that children of all ages could participate in. 

Sustainability and environmental stewardship are important themes for learning on the River Campus, and several of the opportunities for involvement included environmental themes. Just recently, says Lynn, “We had massive participation in the Riverkeeper Sweep: day of service. We had 75 families participate. We were assigned a portion of the JFK Marina in Yonkers, and the kids were able to remove 372 pounds of trash from a fairly small area along the Hudson. We discussed how we were able to prevent all that trash going into the river and that many other volunteers were doing the same thing on the same day.”

Lower School families collect trash at the JFK Marina in Yonkers as part of the 12th annual Riverkeeper Sweep

Many of our River Campus students love books, and a book drive is an important part of our school year. This year, the recipient was Project Cicero, an organization that collects book donations on behalf of New York public schools. “We had many boxes of books donated by our families and students, and then teachers from local schools could pick them up for their school libraries and classrooms,” says Lynn.

Lower School students take a break from collecting trash at the Riverkeeper Sweep

One Saturday, partnering with Bronx-based Grassroots Grocery, students and families made several lunches and packed produce that would have otherwise gone to waste. Then, they took the groceries and lunches to community centers for distribution. “This is an opportunity for children to learn about food scarcity and insecurity,” said Lynn.

Another service learning project involved partnering with God’s Love We Deliver, based in Soho – an organization that prepares thousands of meals every week for New Yorkers who are suffering from severe and chronic illness. Students and families packed meals and then created cards to accompany the deliveries, including birthday cards.“This was very meaningful for students since birthdays for children are such a big deal,” says Lynn.

Riverdale’s mission involves preparing students to “change our world for the good,” and with service learning projects designed for learners at every grade level, Riverdale students come to understand that this is not a mission they must wait to pursue. It’s possible for every person to make a positive difference in our environment, in our communities, and in the lives of others, even in our youngest years.