Giving back never goes out of style. Despite all the new toys in stores and fancy holiday apps online, volunteer work remains one of the best ways to spend the season. In addition to fostering thoughtfulness, charity, and social skills, service-based learning teaches children how to identify and solve issues worth caring about. It’s no wonder why they’re so popular. “Anything that stretches a child to think about people who might have a tougher time helps develop empathy,” says Dr. Michele Borba, EdD, parenting expert and author.
Executive director of the KIDS Consortium, Fran Rudoff, agrees. “As adults, we very often have an idea and we go right out there, plan the whole thing and plunk our kids into it and say, ‘Isn’t this great?’ Kids want to be engaged in things that they’re passionate about.”
Try these five service learning projects with your family this year and make some memories that you’ll never want to return.
Start at Your Stoop. Take a family stroll around the neighborhood and record your observations in notes, drawings or photos. Your child can identify what he likes and dislikes about the environment. Back at home, think of ways to improve the areas that could use some help. For example, offer to shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk, or create a light display to beautify your street.
Greet Guests with a Holiday Map. Highlight what’s great about your neighborhood by creating a brochure and map with all the awesome holiday light displays, and share it with your neighbors. If relatives are visiting, create a pamphlet with a map of your neighborhood for them. Include attractions like the best cafe to get hot chocolate!
Give the Gift of Time. Brainstorm organizations that address the social problems in your community, including libraries, the YMCA, homeless shelters, or nursing homes. Consider which cause is most important to your child, then help him brainstorm ways to help. You can visit the organization and interview the director to see how to apply your ideas. “Don’t make an assumption that an organization needs something,” says Rudoff. “Work with your child to come up with questions to figure out what they need.”
Campaign for a Cause. If your child has specific interests, connect with a local advocacy organization to find out what they’re advocating during the holidays. For example, if he has a green thumb, you could help a local non-profit sell organic wreaths or garlands, or rally for a home weatherization campaign. Then brainstorm ways to involve your community. Could you mention them in your family newsletter, or can you collect donations as part of the holiday wish list?
Donation Station. Reach out to The Salvation Army, Angel Tree, or another organization to find out what you can donate, and create a list of things to donate. The list might include your child’s favorite books to give to a foster care agency, or materials a teenager needs to pass time at a homeless shelter for the night. “We want kids to be gracious as opposed to greedy,” says Lisa Gache, founder and CEO of Beverly Hills Manners. “It’s all about encouraging kids to understand that the holiday season is about everyone.”
After you finish a project, help your child reflect on how he helped, what he learned, and how he can repeat the experience all year long.