Families are counting their blessings this holiday season, perhaps more so than in years past. With the economy in shambles, many parents are particularly cognizant of the need to help their children understand the true meaning of gratitude. And with gratitude, of course, comes the spirit of giving.

“This is really what the holidays are all about,” says Doreen Stephens, Vice President for Programming and Marketing of The LEAGUE, a non-profit service learning program. “It’s important for children to understand that they are a part of a community and that they can impact or influence their community,” Stephens says. “They can give back.”

The LEAGUE works with schools to combine state standards-based lesson plans with community service events. The goal is to teach students the value of giving and to recognize them for their efforts. “We feel that it’s really important to develop the next generation of civic leaders,” Stephens says. “Especially around the holidays—it’s even more important that we balance the other things young people may see.”

Volunteering at soup kitchens or food banks is often the first thing to come to mind. But there are countless ways children and their parents can give back during the holidays. Barbara Dillbeck, Curriculum Director for the LEAGUE, suggests the following volunteering activities for the holidays. “Activities that include friends,” Dillbeck says, “are very motivating for both young children and teens.”

Holiday Cooking Party

Hold a holiday cooking party with friends and family (cookies, soup, bread) to contribute to a food pantry or shelter. Have party guests cook or bake together, or make healthy bags of snacks (pistachio and dried cranberry mix), and have the children wrap with a festive bow and include a handwritten holiday greeting. Set aside time to accompany your child to distribute the gifts to individuals in a local homeless shelter.

Holiday Craft Party

Have your child invite friends to a craft party. The children can make braided or beaded friendship bracelets, blank journals, small containers for pencils, or keepsakes for children in Iraq or Afghanistan. Have the children decorate the crafts in the colors of the U.S. flag and colors of the Iraq or Afghanistan flag, and help the kids include personal messages of friendship. After the party is over, help your child mail the crafts to U.S. service persons in Iraq or Afghanistan to distribute to children they encounter.

Holiday Game Party

Encourage your child to hold a holiday game party (card games, board games) for her friends. Admission can be a food, clothing, or toy item to be donated to a designated charity. Arrange to take your child to the charity so she can see how her efforts will help those in need.

Gift Wish List

Talk to your child about what he cares deeply about—perhaps the environment, animals, hunger, literacy, or health. Help him research organizations that address that interest and encourage him when writing his gift wish list to include contributions in his name to the charitable organization of his choice.

Gift Wrapping

Suggest that your child raise money for a charity of choice by offering a gift-wrapping service or “babysit while you shop” service for friends or family. Have your child team up with friends or children in the neighborhood to make this a social event.

Showcasing Children’s Talents

It’s always a good idea to encourage children to put their talents to good use. A holiday-related play, music performance, or poetry reading can entertain children and adults who are in difficult situations. Encourage your child to spend time with friends perfecting a performance or reading, and then help facilitate a performance for those in need. Children in hospitals, seniors in nursing homes, individuals in homeless shelters—all of these people would enjoy watching young people perform. Budding artists can create a series of holiday paintings to display at a hospital; beginning readers can read aloud to children in a daycare or preschool; young dancers can put on an abbreviated version of The Nutcracker.

The possibilities are endless….Happy Holidays.