Selecting an Appropriate Project
Once children are motivated to participate, parents should think carefully about what service projects are consistent with the values they want to teach, and which feel safe and comfortable enough to allow their children's participation in. For kids in middle childhood, parents should make sure that the projects are simple and concrete, and will have an easily identified outcome which children can point to at the end of the project. This outcome might be a structure that children have helped to build, or a meal they helped to prepare. It might also be happy looks on people's faces at the end of the project. Caregivers will want to be sure the project is age-appropriate and safe. Therefore, working on a hardhat construction site may not be a good idea with a group of 8-year-olds because they probably won't have the skill to hammer nails into a building frame and may not be safe playing and running around the site.
Parents should also consider the child's natural interest and activities when considering the selection of a service project. Even adults are more likely to find volunteer work more rewarding when it includes activities they find naturally rewarding or fun. However, caregivers shouldn't be reluctant to have their kids try something new, if the kids are showing interest in trying a new activity.
Families can choose from basically two types of service projects: 1) small scale, short-term commitments that might be completed in a few days, or 2) larger-scale projects that may extend over longer periods of time and involve a bigger commitment. Families will need to be realistic in their selection, and take into consideration their own resources in terms of time constraints, transportation, hours of service, etc.
There are many small-scale volunteer activities families can try with their children. Some activities do not even require any special planning or organizing. Perhaps family members can try to find one opportunity each day to help someone else out, or simply to be kind. A child can make a point to introduce herself and to talk to the new kid in her class or at Girl Scouts. Or, her brother can help an elderly neighbor carry groceries into the house. Small, everyday acts of kindness can be very powerful. Other smaller scale projects include things like beginning a recycling program. Parents can show their children a video about how recycling works to improve the environment and then research how to recycle in their community. They can help decorate and label colorful bins in which to sort or to store recyclable items and then help put the appropriate items in the bins every day. Or, a family can pick an afternoon and walk around their neighborhood picking up litter and putting it in large trash bags. Family members might even have a contest to see who can fill more small trash bags at the end of the hour or afternoon.
On a larger scale, parents can take their children to a homeless shelter to serve a meal or to a food pantry to pack lunches or grocery boxes. Children could also work at home using their art skills to make get-well cards for sick children at the hospital. Kids that like to cook in the kitchen could bake cookies with their parents' supervision and then deliver them in-person to the elderly in their neighborhood or to residents at a nursing home. They could also make regular visits to such individuals, bringing them homemade valentines in February, singing to them at Christmas, or reading to them on a regular basis.
Another larger scale project that might interest a family is to identify a more global issue that they care about, such as world hunger, world peace, or finding a cure for diabetes or cancer. Families can pick a community fund-raising walk and work to raise money up until the date of the walk. Perhaps they can talk to their own family members and friends' parents about the cause they're walking for and ask for money. Or, they can save all their coins and put them in a bucket for the walk. Then, the whole family can walk together the day of the walk. This helps children feel like they're completing a task, helps children feel like part of a larger group walking the same day for the same purpose, and gives the entire family an opportunity to exercise while having fun.
Another way to be of service includes helping community leaders become aware of a community's need. For instance, youth who like to write or like to talk about their opinions and their beliefs, may enjoy writing a letter to their mayor, a state representative, or congressional member about an issue in their community they care about. Or perhaps they can write an editorial for the local newspaper. Sometimes, these letters do not receive a response, but other times, members of the legislature may be impressed that a child is writing and the child may actually receive a written response in return.
Of course, this is just a very short list of service possibilities. Families should use their imagination to find the right opportunity.
Project Planning and Execution
No matter what they choose, parents need to prepare their children in advance for the service activity they will be participating in. Before starting, parents should talk to their children about what to expect: what they will be doing, what they will see, who they will meet, and where they're going. Most importantly, caregivers should make sure their children understand why they are doing the service project; what the benefit will be to others and to themselves.
Parents should make sure that the children are well rested and fed before the project. They should also make sure that they have snacks, drinks, and antibacterial hand cleaning products or other appropriate clothing and supplies as necessary for the project. Caregivers should make certain that there are bathroom arrangements and "play breaks" for activities lasting more than an hour or two. If other adults are supervising the project, parents need to familiarize themselves with these adults to ensure their children's safety and well-being.
Parents need to talk to their kids before, during, and after the volunteer project. Parents need to make sure that they answer any questions children have about the experience and guide them if they get uncomfortable or scared for any reason. Finally, parents need to review with children what they did that day and talk about how their efforts and contributions made a positive impact.