Getting kids involved in community service is a great way to teach them about the world around them. To be successful, start by including children in activities that interest you, learning what they care about and connecting to other groups with similar interests, says a University of Georgia child development expert.
“There is a natural tendency in young children for empathy,” said Diane Bales, a UGA Extension specialist with the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “We see a pro-social behavior to do for others as children get older. Elementary school is a good time to expand on that natural desire.”
When choosing an activity, go with the child’s interest. If your child is interested in helping fight hunger, organize a food drive. Have the child go to the store with you to pick out food for a family who needs it.
“Children are very concrete,” Bales said. “Collecting money for things is the hardest thing for young children to understand. Collecting a physical thing is better for children.”
Making thank-you cards for school workers can help children understand the importance of connecting with people and showing appreciation. Cleaning up a local park will educate them about litter and the natural world. Walking or running for a cause is something they can do to increase their awareness.
“For very young children understanding something outside of their own experience is very hard,” Bales said. “They may not understand a life other than theirs. It is not a bad idea to expose them to it, but it may be difficult for them to take away.”
Pick causes you are passionate about. Your excitement will spread to your children. In contrast, going along with something you are uncomfortable with could create a bad experience.
“The kids will sense that you are nervous about the activity or not interested and it is likely to be less of a positive experience,” she said. “But, if the kids are passionate about it, you should try to find a way to make it happen.”
Connect with community groups, agencies and non-profits to participate in community service. These groups will already have some structure in place and will make your project more successful.
As in everything, personalities are different. Some children may be drawn to service, while others may not. Bales warns not to try so many different activities that children become burned out on the idea of service.
“Children seem to be drawn to responding to crisis,” Bales said. “They see images and want to help the victims.”
Collecting supplies for a cause is easier for children to understand. Filling a shoebox with toys at Christmas or books for a hospital are two ideas.
Whatever activity you do, preparing children for what they will experience is a good idea. If you are headed to a children’s hospital, prepare them for what they might see. Describe the smell of a nursing home or explain that some of the patients may not understand who they are.
“Describing what they can expect makes it a lot less scary when they are there,” Bales said.
Have an activity planned for the visit. A craft project, singing songs or handing out cards are a few examples Bales suggests.
Talk to children about their experiences after a service project. Helping someone else makes people feel good.
“If kids recognize the positive feelings they have about doing something they are more likely to continue,” Bales said. “(Community service) is good for them. It gives them exposure to experiences they may not have had otherwise and it broadens their view of the world.”