We all want to raise children who are engaged with their communities, who help others in need, and who work to make the world a better place. Volunteering reinforces these values and helps children develop empathy and compassion, but finding opportunities that are age-appropriate may seem daunting. It doesn’t have to be. Whether your kids are 2 or 12, there are plenty of ways they can give back. Here’s how to get started:
Volunteering with Young Children
Toddlers, preschoolers and kindergarteners may seem too young to participate in volunteer efforts, but there are plenty of opportunities that little ones and parents can do together. And there’s no reason not to start early—young children may not fully grasp the concept of volunteering, but taking part in these activities from an early age will help establish service as a regular part of their lives. While some activities are not yet appropriate for young children, and others will depend on your child’s temperament, these three family-friendly projects are a great place to start:
Visit a nursing home or retirement community. Spending time with older members of your community is beneficial for both children and the elderly. Nursing homes often welcome children as young as 2 to visit with residents — some even schedule special toddler days. But even if your neighborhood nursing home doesn’t, organizing a visit can be as easy as calling to see if you’re welcome to drop by. Before you go, have your child create holiday or birthday cards to deliver to the residents.
Adopt a family during the holidays. By the time they enter preschool, many kids are rattling off a never-ending list of “wants,” particularly around the winter holidays. Teach children that the holidays are more about giving than they are about getting by seeking out a local social service agency that organizes an adopt-a-family program. Then, armed with the ages of the family members and their wish lists, take your child shopping for gifts, wrap them together and make homemade cards.
Participate in a community clean-up day. Neighborhood organizations often host seasonal clean-up days for parks and other public areas. Even young children can pick up trash, rake leaves, and plant gardens. This is a great opportunity to get young children outside as they begin to learn about giving back locally and taking pride in their community.
Volunteering with Older Children
As your child progresses through elementary school, she becomes more capable of taking an active role in service projects, which means the volunteer opportunities available to your family increase significantly. Kids this age are also able to join organizations that make service a part of their mission — like school clubs, youth groups, and scouting troops.
Organize a food drive. Older elementary and middle-school-aged kids can take the lead on volunteer projects that require planning and commitment. With a little help from mom and dad, a sitter, a teacher, or a coach or group leader, organizing a canned food drive for a local food pantry is a manageable undertaking for kids. Help them choose a community organization they will donate to, collect and organize items, and deliver them to the organization.
Serve meals at a homeless shelter. Volunteering to serve meals at a homeless shelter is a wonderful way to expose older kids to some of the more complex issues facing our world. They’ll be able to interact with people who are facing situations very different from their own. Be prepared to discuss some difficult topics and answer tough questions — these conversations are important to raising compassionate and empathetic kids.
Hold a bake sale for a good cause. Organizing a bake sale is an easy way to raise funds for a cause that interests your child. Depending on your child’s age and the resources available to you, this can be as simple as setting up a stand with cookies and lemonade at the end of your driveway or coordinating a group effort during a community event. Let your child take responsibility for choosing the charity, contributing baked goods, and setting up and staffing the sale (with adult supervision of course). After the sale, your child can deliver a check to the organization, which will get him excited for his next fundraiser.
Tips for Teen Volunteers
Teens have a better understanding of the problems facing society, and once in high school, volunteer experiences can be life-changing — service can help broaden a young adult’s horizons, set her on a path that leads to a rewarding career, and expose her to a diverse world. And teens can often volunteer without a parent, so allow them to make choices about participating in projects and programs that interest them. Encourage them to join groups dedicated to service or help them seek out opportunities on their own. Support their work and engage them in conversation about their volunteer experiences.
As you begin your search for volunteer opportunities appropriate for your child or your family, the best resources are often the ones in your local community. Schools, churches, YMCAs, park districts, nursing homes, libraries, social services agencies and scouting troops are just a few of the organizations that regularly plan volunteer projects. There are also national organizations that offer searchable databases of volunteer programs. Here are a few to start with:
—VolunteerMatch.org matches organizations and non-profits with local volunteers for projects in metropolitan areas around the country.
—generationOn.org provides resources that support the development of caring, compassionate and capable kids with campaigns, days of services, clubs and more.
—Idealist.org offers a searchable directory of volunteer opportunities around the globe, including projects for families.
Make Service Stick
Like with any habit, if you want your kids to make volunteering a lasting part of their lives — and not a one-off event — you need to do it regularly. Use these tips to make it stick:
—Encourage your child to join organizations that focus on volunteerism. Scouting programs, key clubs and church youth groups all have service components.
—Make it a tradition. The holidays are the perfect time for families to start volunteering, but you can go beyond once a year by finding projects to participate in seasonally.
—Find organizations that you and your kids feel connected to. Your child’s school or a local non-profit is an easy place to start, but as they get older, figure out the type of service interests them most, whether it’s animals, the environment, social justice issues or working with kids.
—Lead by example. Seeing mom and dad give back to the community makes it easier for kids to get involved and stay involved. Set the expectation early and practice what you preach.