When my oldest was 6 months old, we did 10 hours of tornado disaster relief with her on my back. When my middle daughter was one, our family served other children in the community teaching them how to play soccer and fulfilling their every need. And now with my youngest, we regularly go grocery shopping to make meals for others less fortunate than ourselves.
But those are just a few examples of family volunteering and acts of kindness towards others.
It’s a habit we want to make and display for our children, which means that it’s just as important for our toddlers to perform acts of service as it is for them to see it modeled by us. We want to raise children with sacrificial heart and to me selfless in a selfish world.
Why it matters that toddlers and preschoolers volunteer in their communities
Raising kids to be kind and participate in acts of service even as toddlers is about building character.
It means helping them understand diversity, adversity, and empathy. While it can sometimes be difficult to think of ways to incorporate (especially young) toddlers in a routine of serving others, it’s not impossible and it’s very much rooted in imitation of what they see in those around them.
Make “helping others” a daily discussion with your little ones. Even the smallest act can be of service to others and even a smile when someone is having an off day can serve them in ways we cannot fully understand.
List of Toddler-friendly Acts of Service
Plant a tree or some seeds in your community – there are always projects to help beautify a certain part of town and it’s easy for toddlers to do some of the smaller stuff like drop seeds into place or even practice their scooping skills by using a spade to dig a small hole.
Help grow a garden in your neighborhood – The food can be picked and dispersed to neighbors and people in need of fresh, healthy food. If there is even more left over, you could donate to a food bank.
Keep bottles of water in the car – have your toddler be the one to hand out a bottle of water to someone in need, especially on hot summer days.
Have your toddler help choose which clothes to keep and which to donate – even when my daughter was 18 months old, she had a strong opinion. So make a small stack of clothes and have them help you decide if they’re going to keep it or not. Then you can take them to a donation center or to someone you know in need.
Stuff socks with fresh fruit and with gloves to hand out to the homeless in the winter. (We did this with stockings around Christmas when I was a kid).
Keep a “Homeless box” in the car and have your child continually help fill it and hand out items, even if it’s $5 gift cards to a food venue.
Visit a local animal shelter to play with the animals – so many of the un-adopted animals do not get the time out of their cage that they need. Even if you go to play with them in a holding room, it’s more time and attention than most of them have.
Have them color cards to take to a nursing home – have your toddler also hand them out and spend time listening to stories from the past.
Have your child take a note to a table in a restaurant telling them that your family is paying for their meal.
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More ways to get young kids involved in serving others
Spend time with a family who has a parent deployed – the time and distraction in itself is serving them, but if you can help take them a meal, get their groceries for them, or watch the kids while your toddler plays, this is a great way to show a toddler how to help those in your community.
Make cards for kids in the local children’s hospital. Have your toddler pick out some favorite knick-knacks to include like stickers, a box of crayons, etc..
Start a tradition to waving at all cars and people – developing a happy and welcoming attitude is part of engaging a young toddler in having a heart of service.
Have your toddler help pick out and pack care packages – these can be for college students during finals, chemo patients, those living in nursing homes, a neighbor, or anyone.
Make a day of random acts of kindness – stock up on fruit, water bottles, coloring books, books, and any sort of random item that the average person uses. You can surprise completely random strangers with a goodie to make them smile that day.
Do something for a cause – this could be that you have a coin bank that you save up with, walk for a cause like the March of dimes, raise money through a fund raiser, bake sale, or lemonade stand, or even just devoting time for a cause.
Volunteer at a local kitchen, shelter, or relief effort – even toddlers can many times tag along. They are great at helping stock and greeting people. I took my daughter with me to a 12 hour days of working tornado disaster relief in after the Moore, OK tornado. While she was very young, we volunteered in the toy and book area. We organized and she played while greeting other little kids who came into the room.
Help make holiday decorations for places like shelters, Meals on Wheels, Nursing homes, and even low-income schools.
Put together backpack care packages for low-income school kids in your area. If you contact your local schools, you can ask about kids that are on free and reduced lunch plans and if any of them might need some food or care packages. You can have your tots and preschoolers help you make them and then deliver them to the school’s office to hand out. These types of packages can include canned goods and non-perishable items, a few treats labeled “for the student only!”, a few small toys, and maybe even a gift card to a local grocery store or place where they can eat out as a family.
Take a walk in your neighborhood picking up trash, raking leaves, and leaving things better than you found them. (I realize some parents do not want young kids handling trash. You can provide gloves, find a trash claw, or have your toddler just hold the bag.)
Pray for your leaders – this can be anyone from politicians, leaders at your place of worship, parents, teachers, etc..
Have your toddler help cook a dinner for someone sick, a new mom, or for someone with a family member deployed overseas.
Make small baby baskets and take them to the local NICU. Have your child pick out their favorite baby items to put in the basket. Also include things that tired, worried parents might appreciate like a gift card for pizza delivery (since they are typically stuck at the hospital), a note of encouragement, etc.. Deliver these to the desk at the hospital. You can even ask if a family was there and available to give it to them directly.
Have your toddler help you write out/color note cards of encouraging words. Go to a busy local park and have them hand the cards out and/or post them on park benches, light poles, and swing sets.
Find a child to sponsor, locally or internationally, that is your toddler’s age. Have your child play a primary role in treating that child as if they were a friend.
Help pick up someone’s house. If you know a new mom, an elderly person/couple, or someone disabled, offer to come over and help clean and tidy up. Toddlers can help dust, pick up, wash windows, and just be of company while you help.
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Kara is an author, wife, and mother of 3 children living in Boston, MA. She has her degree in Secondary Education & Adolescent Childhood Development and is passionate about connecting with and even helping other parents on their journey to raise awesome kids!