At some point during the parenting journey, many moms and dads look at their children and think, “You kids don’t know how good you have it. There are children without homes, clothes, or food, yet you don’t appreciate all the things you have.” Maybe you’ve actually voiced these opinions (loudly, even!) to your kids. It’s true – so many of our children have little reason to understand the comfortable lives they lead. There is, however, a way to help children learn about a world beyond their wants and desires: Volunteering.

Before you have visions of dragging your children to a seedy part of town to work at a soup kitchen, relax. Volunteer opportunities exist that are suitable for all ages and interests. Getting children involved in volunteering is an ideal way to expand their awareness of the world.

Many schools now require students to participate in volunteer activities as a graduation requirement. It’s one thing to see a starving child on the television, rummaging through scraps in a dump in India. When your children meet a child living in a homeless center in their own community, suddenly poverty becomes real.

Not all volunteer activities need to involve “serious” situations. Consider the family that established a routine of staying after church for 30 minutes each Sunday. They went to the church nursery and disinfected the baby toys to reduce the spread of germs. A simple act such as washing teething rings helps children see their efforts contribute to a better environment for babies.

Looking for practical ways to get children involved in volunteering? Try some of these ideas:

Bedtime snack sacks

While most kids enjoy a bedtime snack, children living in homeless shelters seldom have that treat. With your kids, decorate a number of lunch bags with markers, sequins, and glitter. Fill each bag with a juice pack and non-perishable treat such as a granola bar, packaged crackers, or dried fruit. Add a small “Happy Meals” type toy as a surprise. Deliver the snack sacks to a women’s shelter. For privacy reasons, your child may not actually see any residents at the shelter. The experience should foster some meaningful conversation with older kids about why the shelter exists and how it’s supported, while younger children will feel good knowing they helped another.

Dog and cat fun

Local humane societies look for volunteers to walk their dogs. See if your family can register as dog walkers. You’ll get exercise along with the dogs! Kids can also collect old towels and newspapers to donate to shelters to use for animal care.

Many senior citizens cherish their pets. Seniors on limited incomes often have difficulty paying for pet food and supplies. How about getting your children to collect pet food and then donate it to a senior center? One family got out their trusty red wagon and went door to door in their neighborhood, asking pet owners to donate food. (Ask people without pets if they can make a cash donation.)

Outdoor clean-up

Contact your local Parks and Recreation department to see if they need help on trail clean-up. Kids can help staff create trails, plant flowers, and maintain park facilities. One park in Bellingham, Washington, uses volunteers with donkeys to clear trails!

Road runs

Offer to be a volunteer with a local road run or sports event. Organizers always need people to take registration or to distribute T-shirts. Children can pass out water or even hold the ribbon at the finish line.

Entertainment

Do your children have dramatic or musical talents? Have them practice a skit, song, or musical piece. Offer to present a “talent show” to a local nursing home.

Decorating delight

Volunteer to decorate for seasonal activities at nursing homes or group homes. You can purchase inexpensive streamers, balloons, and decorating supplies – and for a personal touch, kids can make some of their own decorations. Even toddlers can help out with paper chains or adding their own artwork.

Reading fun

Check if the local library needs help with reading programs. Children can make posters about upcoming events or dress as a storybook character. Additionally, older kids may read to seniors at nursing homes or to someone who has lost his or her vision.

Volunteer center

See if your community has a volunteer center. These facilities usually have a list of organizations that are looking for volunteers.

When children volunteer, they often find themselves in a position where responsibility is required. Did they sign up to plant flowers at the community center? Then it’s important they follow planting and watering instructions. At the turn of the century, children knew they were needed to help plant crops and take care of livestock – but as children volunteer today, there’s a newfound sense of being needed. Children gain self-confidence when they know they’ve made a real contribution to a volunteer project. The Search Institute reports that youth who volunteer just one hour a week are 50 percent less likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes or engage in destructive behavior. Could it be that youth involved in volunteer work have self-confidence to make positive choices?

Volunteering also puts children in contact with other adults to serve as positive role models. As children work side by side with grownups on volunteer projects, they observe adults giving time and effort to worthwhile causes. Instead of looking up to a rock star advocating skimpy outfits and numerous marriages, your children just might say,” Mom, Mr. Stevens is so cool! Do you know he helps sick eagles and hawks at the bird sanctuary?”

As with all new experiences, it can be scary starting to volunteer. Children usually find themselves out of their comfort zone and may need reassurance. It won’t be long though, until children realize the inner satisfaction that comes from helping people, animals, or the environment. If you also get involved in volunteering, children will benefit from time spent with you as well!