Ultimate Guide to Service Projects for Kids: Part 2
Welcome to Part 2 of 3 of the Ultimate Guide to Service Projects for Kids.
If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
Part 2: How to Inspire a Giving Heart from Toddlerhood On
I recently read an article on ServiceLeader.org, in which the importance of volunteering in very young children is discussed.
“In a modern society, we rarely give our youngest citizens the opportunity to contribute their ideas and talents. Even organizations that serve or advocate for children perceive them primarily as recipients of service, rather than potential contributors to their service. Yet, as society seeks to maximize available resources, can it afford to continue to overlook society’s youngest citizens?”
(Gabina Torres, December 2003)
This has been my sentiment, exactly. Many service organizations have minimum age requirements, but why can’t we open up opportunities for our youngest helpers that are appropriate for their age, skill level, and allow them to demonstrate their individual talents and interests?! I think we can!
Can very young children (toddlers and preschoolers) participate in community service and volunteering?
Yes, of course! But, we do have to take care in how we approach community service with young children.
Here are some thoughts to keep in mind with toddlers and preschoolers, so that we can be sure to inspire a giving heart:
- Since many organizations have age limits for volunteering, we can create our OWN opportunities. Fundraising, charity walks, picking up trash in the neighborhood, helping a neighbor with yard work or feeding a pet. These are all things little ones can do that still make a huge difference in the world.
- Think beyond traditional service opportunities and instead take kids places to expose them to social issues such as homelessness, animal rescue or saving the environment. By showing our children the issues and needs in the community, and by exposing them to the diverse population we could serve, we set a foundation for the volunteer work they could participate in in the future.
- With little children, simple is often better. Finding projects that don’t require huge time commitments and fit well within their ability level is important. It’s easy for children to lose interest, become overwhelmed, or wear out. Simple activities will teach children that service can be fun and rewarding, and also gives them a sense of autonomy, purpose, and pride because they helped on their own. Following through on a service project to completion is such a great feeling!
- Keep the task well within the ability level, especially for those children who get discouraged or give up easily.
- If a child is shy or intimidated by large groups, start small with a few friends or family members. Later you can work your way up to larger events.
- Identify your children’s strengths and use them as a way to serve others. When children feel successful and love what they are doing, it encourages them to keep going. I mentioned this in my post about gratitude. The key is to make service positive and enjoyable, as well as to establish a lifelong love of helping others in a way that matches child’s personality traits and strengths.
- For a child who loves sports, try volunteering at a sporting event or fundraising for a neighborhood middle or high school athlete.
- For a child who is outgoing and very empathetic, spending time with residents of a retirement home would be a great fit.
- If a child loves the outdoors and helping in the yard, volunteer to help a neighbor do yard work, pull weeds at a community center, or help plant a tree.
- Plan for snack breaks. Anyone who is a parent knows this already, so it probably goes without saying, but bring snacks. Kids sometimes regroup and get a second wind after a snack, so plan for that ahead of time. You may get a lot more service time out of them if you can plan in a little break!
- Be okay with leaving early or canceling if you have to. With little ones, you never know what you’re going to get day-to-day.
- If it happens to be a day where your child is particularly fussy, just can’t stay focused on the activity, has more energy (or less energy) than usual, or gets sick: it is okay to cut the event short or cancel. As parents, we have to be flexible. No one is going to think any less of you if it just doesn’t work out. What is important is that your heart is there, and you tried!
- The most important thing is that your children enjoy the experience.
- Yes, the point of service is to give selflessly and help others. But, with little ones, if we push too hard, take them to do the type of service that is too demanding, or continually force them into activities that do not mesh with their personalities, they are less likely to find service to be important, worthwhile, and positive. In order to inspire a giving heart, we have to think about how to make the experience as uplifting for everyone as possible.
- Before and after the experience, talk about both the helpers and the receivers. Discuss how everyone feels as a result of the project. Discuss why you did the project, how and why it is important, and celebrate the accomplishment. We can use simple language to begin to expose kids to social issues and the ways we can make the world a better place!
Proof that it is possible to make this happen with ANY toddler: My son!
My 2.5-year-old son, The Knight, is SO BUSY. He’s definitely giving me a run for my money. He climbs everything (we even have safety latches on our UPPER cabinets in the kitchen), can get out of his crib which makes bedtime a challenge (at best), is no longer napping, opens every door, heads outside, and recently even locked me out briefly (we now have safety latches on every door), and is so destructive. Needless to say, I was apprehensive about doing community service with him. I thought,
“Will he just wreak havoc rather than being helpful?”
“Will I be too exhausted from chasing him around and trying to keep him out of trouble?”
“Should I wait until he is older?”
Despite my inner voice telling me it might not be a great idea, I decided community service was important enough to me to give it a try anyway. I also followed my above advice and chose simple, short, age-appropriate service projects that fit well within his interests, ability level, and short attention span. For example:
- On Tuesdays, we go to “Happy Helpers” at a retirement home. There is always a short story and music time at the beginning of the session, followed by a short, simple service project. In the fall we made centerpieces for Meals on Wheels. For Veteran’s Day, we decorated pillowcases for service men and women in combat hospitals. At Christmas, we made cards for families at the Eugene Mission.
- He loves these service projects because there are several activities to hold his attention, he loves books and music, they have a snack, and he can successfully complete one simple service project for others. I allow for the flexibility to leave whenever he is ready. We don’t have to stay all the way until the end if it isn’t in the cards, and that is okay! Any little bit of service we can get in is great.
- We’ve done a couple of outdoors service projects with Little Hands Can. Both of my boys LOVE to be outside, so anytime there is an outdoors service project they are all over it. They love getting muddy, pulling weeds, pushing wheelbarrows, using tools, shovels, rakes. It’s perfect for them.
- The first project was pulling weeds at the Toolbox Project back in September. It was an hour-long project of digging, pulling weeds, and getting dirty…heaven!
- The second project was helping at Grassroots Garden. The Grassroots Garden grows food to help feed those in need through Food for Lane County. It also provides opportunities for youth to learn about gardening and to contribute to their community. It’s an all-around a beautiful place aesthetically but also at its heart. Our kids spent time hauling composting leaves throughout the garden. It was amazing that the kids were able to do this hard work for an hour and still could have done more! My boys loved it. Watching the little ones push wheelbarrows around (while actually being extremely helpful) was pretty darn cute!
I’m so glad I went for it with my kids! Your little ones can do service, too! Take these guidelines into consideration when beginning service projects, and you are sure to inspire a giving heart in your children. The earlier we can make something a positive part of everyday life, the more likely it is that our kids will find it important, make it a priority, and continue it throughout their lives.
Inspire your little helpers, and start them young! Tune in next week for the final part of the series: The Ultimate List of Service Projects for Kids!