From innovative ideas to the twists and turns of real-life experiences, we seek to motivate all kids – from those who've already taken the leap to kids who don't yet have it on their radar.
Chances are your kids have figured out that sharing and generosity are good traits to have from their first episode of Sesame Street. But when it comes to helping your kids put those values into practice in meaningful ways, many parents are stumped. To help your kids give back—of their time or their allowance and gift money—we compiled a bunch of child-friendly volunteering ideas, along with tips for building a giving habit that sticks.
Starting volunteering and charitable giving at an early age can help form a tradition in your kids’ lives. Volunteering also helps kids build self-confidence, develop new skills, form relationships and expand youngsters’ worldviews. “Cell phones and computers have created a shift in the way kids are growing up and forming relationships,” says Maribeth Kuzmeski, a marketing consultant and parent of two teenagers whose most recent book The Engaging Child focuses on small steps parents can take to get kids of all ages to connect with the world around them. “Volunteering is huge because it allows them to have face to face contact with adults and people who are different than them—instead of hiding behind screens,” Kuzmeski says.
Here are some ways to nurture the inner giver in your kids.
1. Do as I do.
It’s never too early to start modeling the behavior that you want your kids to pick up, says Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness. “Even when they’re young, make a point when they’re in the room to talk about the different charitable organizations you support,” Patkin says. “Let them pick up how passionate you are about giving, and how great it makes you feel.” Even if you don’t have a lot of time to volunteer, practicing random acts of kindness—making dinner for a sick friend or holding the door for someone at the grocery store—helps kids see how good it feels to give.
Mom of four and small-acts-of-generosity blogger Patience Salgado of kindnessgirl.com recruits her kids to help her with what she calls a “Ding Dong ditchin’.” The plan: pack up some sweets (such as a the classic Hostess Ding Dongs), leave it on someone’s porch, ring the bell, and then run.
2. Add a spoonful of sugar.
Positive associations are the name of the game when you’re introducing your child to volunteer work or charitable giving. When Ballooning Nest Eggs writer Dorothy Frank convinced her 8-year-old twin boys to have a charity birthday party, she promised them they’d still get presents they really wanted if they helped raise money for earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. Their party guests donated on the boys’ behalf, and the boys received bikes and a trip to a Yankees game from their parents and grandparents. Likewise, if you bring your kids along for a spring clean up of a local park, stop for an ice cream cone on the way home. That’s right: ice cream=community-building work. Pavlov would be proud.
3. Connect the dots to what your kids care about.
Volunteering will be much more likely to “stick” if kids understand the big picture mission that they’re contributing to, says Kuzmeski. “I was at the bank and a group of kids were sitting outside selling Girl Scout cookies,” she says. “When I walked by they didn’t ask me if I wanted to buy some cookies. They asked me if I wanted to support Girl Scouts. It’s not about selling cookies; it’s about supporting a larger purpose. Otherwise we are just workers.”
Tying volunteer work in with your kids’ latest craze is another way to make it fun. If The Hunger Games is all they can talk about, use the book (or movie) as a way to broach the topic of world hunger, and brainstorm ways to help. Jordan Sheridan in Syracuse, New York used her position as pitcher on her school’s softball team as a way to raise nearly $4,000 for the local Samaritan Center food pantry. Jordan gathered pledges ranging from 5 cents (from her 5-year-old sister) to a dollar per batter she struck out during the 2011 season.
Here are more ways to find a volunteer match for your child.
- For animal lovers: The local Humane Association and ASPCA are only the tip of the iceberg for volunteering with animals. There are also many smaller animal welfare groups for dogs, cats, and even rabbits and hamsters. On Petfinder, enter your zip code for a list of local rescue groups. You and your kids can volunteer by signing up to walk a dog, visit with cats or bunnies, or help with other pet-care chores depending on the particular group’s volunteer policies.
If your kids have been pushing for a pet, this can also be a great way to teach them about the responsibility involved. Many groups have foster care programs where you can bring home dogs and cats temporarily (just make sure you and your kids understand whether the animal is actually available for a full adoption, or if you’re truly giving him a temporary home while the owner can’t care for him for some reason).
Got a horse lover on your hands but no room for a stable? Search by your zip code on Petfinder to find out if there’s a local horse rescue that’s looking for volunteers. These groups often take in retired racehorses and other horses whose owners can no longer take care of them. In exchange for donated time (and the willingness to muck out some stalls), kids get the chance to spend time with and learn about horses.
- For sports fans: Road races are a booming business in the U.S. both as charity fundraisers and community-building events, and organizers are always looking for volunteers to distribute t-shirts, hand out water, and point runners in the right direction along the course. Since there’s inevitable downtime on a racecourse that spans at least a few miles, volunteering with a friend can help to counteract boredom.
- For nature lovers: Helping with a community garden day or clearing trails at a local park gives outdoorsy kids a chance to learn about plants and nature from knowledgeable adults. Kids will find this a rewarding experience when they see the results of their work—and they can brag about it every time they visit the park. Call your local community center to ask about beautification projects or go to americanhiking.org to search for trail maintenance events near you. (Mark your calendar for June 2, which is the 20th annual National Trails Day.)
- For technophiles: Guess what: searching the web and playing video games can help your child raise money for his or her charity of choice. At Goodsearch.com you can search for an organization to support, then sign up to have advertisers donate money for the time you spend online either via a downloadable toolbar or by using the Yahoo-powered GoodSearch search engine. The company has also recently launched GoodShop.com and GoodDining.com, which allow you to donate a percentage of your purchase price when you shop online or dine out at restaurants. Even if you’re the one paying the bill, your kids can get involved by searching for and choosing participating restaurants when you eat out as a family. Another site we like is Free Rice, a quiz game in which your kids answer questions and actual “free rice” is donated to hungry individuals around the world through the World Food Programme.
- For budding artists and entertainers: Putting on a skit or musical number for nursing home residents gives kids a receptive and appreciative audience—and provides residents some welcome youthful entertainment. Kids can also volunteer to decorate the home for the season or for an upcoming holiday.
Know a kid who’s given back in innovative ways? Tell us about it on our Facebook page.