It’s important for children to engage in community involvement that fosters their own learning.

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Parents have the shared goal of instilling in their children the importance of community involvement and giving back. It’s never too early to get kids to participate in some form of community work and expose them to the many causes that need as many volunteers as possible. If you’re not sure where to start — or even how to start the conversation in a constructive manner — chances are you’re not alone. Use these tips as a guide to foster a lifelong commitment to community involvement.

Expose them to a variety of causes and skills

Kids will gravitate toward certain causes that strike a chord — but they’re not going to be passionate about every volunteer opportunity, and that’s okay. Joseph Romano, librarian and design teacher at Annie Wright Upper School for Boys, emphasizes the importance of exposure when it comes to both causes and skills. As a design teacher, Romano leads the Tiny House project, a six-month endeavor in which students design a tiny house for people experiencing homelessness.

Romano says that homelessness does become the cause of choice for certain students, while others benefit more from the skills they learn in the process, such as carpentry. When they reflect on the project upon its completion, part of the process is dissecting what resonated. Some students may choose to use carpentry skills in community service endeavors other than homelessness, while other students may feel passionate about working on the homelessness crisis but be more interested in doing so through a different skill, such as culinary arts.

“There are a variety of different organizations that take one-off or extended projects that kids can sign up for,” Romano says. By trying out these projects, they can figure out what skills they want to cultivate, and what causes are closest to their hearts.

Cultivate stakeholders

In order to raise children who will be involved in the community long term, we need to cultivate stakeholders, says Annie Katica Green, dean of students at Annie Wright Upper School for Girls. In addition to volunteering, Green emphasizes the importance of fostering empathy and teaching children to become creative thinkers and problem solvers. Then they can move forward toward engaging in meaningful action that’s outward-focused.

To cultivate stakeholders, Green says it’s important for children to recognize the mission and the community values that are being upheld through a nonprofit organization when they’re trying out volunteer opportunities. “Once a student comes to know and care about the mission, and recognize barriers or obstacles in realizing that mission, students are better equipped to generate their own ideas and actions that are appropriate, feasible, and authentic to both who they are and the needs of the nonprofit,” Green says.

Students at Annie Wright Schools learn new skills on the Tiny House project. (Annie Wright Schools)
Students at Annie Wright Schools learn new skills on the Tiny House project. (Annie Wright Schools)

Measure the impact rather than the hours spent

Instead of telling children that they need to perform a minimum number of hours of community service per month or school quarter, Green suggests focusing on the impact of the work rather than the number of hours. Furthermore, it’s important for children to engage in community involvement that fosters their own learning.

“We want [children] to identify ways they can authentically lean in to communities around them in ways that are reciprocal, both for their own learning and the needs of the community,” Green explains. At the end of the day, measuring positive impact is more beneficial than accounting for time, or even effort — the goal is to cultivate volunteers and advocates who can accomplish as much as possible in an efficient manner rather than children who simply tally the hours of volunteering and call it a day.

A finished tiny house, designed and built by Annie Wright students for people experiencing homelessness. (Annie Wright Schools)
A finished tiny house, designed and built by Annie Wright students for people experiencing homelessness. (Annie Wright Schools)

Discuss community involvement at dinnertime

Romano says dinnertime conversations are an ideal way to organically discuss causes and skills. By talking with your kids about what they’re learning in their everyday lives, at school, and during family activities, you can unlock ideas about community service that will be a great fit.

Romano uses a family hike as an example. If your kids really enjoyed this activity, he suggests asking questions such as “Is that something our community needs more of?” and “If so, how can we help?” If the family hike was a success, then a great next step is getting your kids involved in a trail maintenance organization so that other people can enjoy the hike as well. This same tactic can be applied to other activities and outings that your children have enjoyed.

Curate a list of problems in the world that one can help solve

In September the UN released a list of sustainable development goals, ranging from quality education to gender equality to climate action. Romano describes it as “a perfect menu board for service.” Look over the goals with your children and see which ones pique their interest. Then, brainstorm how you and your child can take that goal and apply it in your community. Find organizations in the area that specialize in the issue, whether it’s poverty or access to clean water. The impact won’t always be global, but it will still be an important impact.

Founded in 1884, Annie Wright Schools serve students from age 3 through high school. Annie Wright Lower and Middle Schools offer coed programs in preschool through grade 8. Separate Upper Schools for boys and girls offer day and boarding options in grades 9-12.