From sorting recyclables to taking part in a rally for a good cause, these community service ideas for kids will make giving back second nature.

By Kaitlin Lowe
Lucy Schaeffer

Let’s set the record straight: No child is too young to volunteer. In fact, during the toddler and preschool years, being a helper shapes a child’s developing sense of morality, says Joseph F. Hagan Jr., M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Larner College of Medicine at The University of Vermont, in Burlington.

Help spark lifelong altruism with these age-specific ideas from experts, families, and in some cases, kids themselves.

Volunteer Ideas for Ages 2 to 4

  • Pick wildflowers with your child, bundle them up, and together give the bouquet to a friend, a family member, or a neighbor who could use cheering up.
  • Encourage him to notice a child playing alone and have him ask to join in.
  • Pick out nonperishables from your cabinets together and pack a box for your local food bank. You could also consider starting a reverse Advent calendar, having your child put one item in a box every day leading up to Christmas. Dairy products and lean proteins are in high demand, so shelf-stable milk, peanut butter, and canned tuna are good to grab.
  • Take advantage of your toddler’s love of sorting, and ask her to help put recyclables into your bin. It’s a good chance to remind yourself of the types of plastics and papers that can and can’t be recycled.
  • Set up two coin jars in his room and give him change to collect. When they're full, help him choose one gift that you know a friend needs and one treat for being kind.
  • Write “Thank you!” on cards for your preschooler to color. Carry them with you to give to workers or veterans you encounter.
  • Decorate paper lunch bags and holiday-themed place mats together, then help add a special touch to deliveries by donating your crafts to Meals on Wheels or a local nursing home.

Volunteer Ideas for Ages 5 to 7

  • Before a big haircut, ask your child if she’d like to donate to Locks of Love, an organization that makes free wigs for people who have lost their hair due to an illness. She’ll need at least 10 inches of extra length secured in a ponytail holder and a donation form.
  • Encourage your child to assemble an “activity box” with toys he’s outgrown, then donate it to a social-services center, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, or a local Y.
  • Check out the DIY donation ideas at AntiCruelty.org, where you can find easy tutorials for making dog and cat toys for animal shelters. Dropping them off with a can of food or a bag of kitty litter is extra useful.
  • Help your birthday kid select a cause she cares about, make a collection box, and ask classmates and neighbors for donations. If you’re throwing a party, use KidsCanGiveToo.com to send invites and collect money for a charity.
  • Choose his favorite of 100-plus threatened and endangered animals at WorldWildlife.org. He can draw pictures of the animal in exchange for donations from friends and family, then “adopt” it and a plush toy.
  • Set up a hot-chocolate stand to raise money for your child’s charity of choice. “Your kid can make a sign letting customers know what she’s raising money for and why she believes in it,” suggests Aubre Andrus, author of 101 Small Ways to Change the World.
  • Seek out a local animal shelter that offers a reading program. Many ASPCAs and Animal Humane Society locations allow kids to practice their reading skills with dogs and cats that need some interaction.
  • Collect old books and help him build a lending library outside your home; get details at LittleFreeLibrary.org. Your neighbors can stop by to collect and share books for free. Or find Head Start locations near you and ask if they need used children’s books.

Volunteer Ideas for Ages 8 and Up

  • Visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website to learn about endangered species in your state. Ask your child to choose an animal to draw and write a letter together encouraging your congressional leaders to support conservation policies that protect this species.
  • Assist him in setting up a beach cleanup with his friends. Look together at the tips at OceanConservancy.org. Search for volunteer opportunities at the U.S. National Parks.
  • Learn how she can help start a school-supplies drive with friends and family through the Kids in Need Foundation.
  • Solicit contributions of unused clothing and personal-care items for a Refugee Hope Box, and have your child write a letter of support. Find a free label to ship donations at OperationRefugeeChild.org.
  • Tell your child about a local political rally. Discuss why a cause is worth your advocacy, then make a sign and attend the event together.
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