This article reports on a service learning project in a South African primary school teacher education programme, as experiential and practice-based pedagogy in a social studies methods course. We aimed to broaden understanding of service learning as a form of non-placement work-integrated learning for the development of teacher professional competencies. Student teachers drew on topics in the middle school social studies curriculum and incorporated Indigenous geographical elements with local community history in the design of a service learning ‘gallery walk’ for Grade 5 learners. Using a generic qualitative design, data were generated from students’ and teachers’ reflective journals, lesson plans, photographs and video recordings. It was analysed for common content themes and prominent discourse markers of students’ developing professional knowledge and competencies. The findings provide evidence of deepened student learning, particularly on the influence of context and curriculum differentiation and how their struggles with group work enabled the development of collaboration and co-operation required by professionals. In addition, the service learning prompted changing notions of citizenship and reciprocity of learning.