Nature + Volunteering = Opportunity

By Sandi Schwartz

Both volunteer work and spending time in nature have been scientifically proven to increase happiness and improve mood, so why not combine these ideas by participating in outdoor community service projects as a family that also help our environment?

Benefits Of Volunteering

When we give back to our community, we actually experience a physiological change called a helper’s high. This euphoric physical sensation results from our brain releasing chemicals called endorphins such as dopamine. According to Psychology Today, this “high” makes us feel good naturally, giving us a rush that leaves us elated and excited. Also, thinking about, watching, or practicing kindness stimulates the vagus nerve, which is linked to the production of oxytocin, a hormone that soothes us. As a result, we experience positive health changes including less stress, anxiety, and depression.

Other benefits of volunteering include experiencing more compassion, feeling more connected to our community, being more grateful for what we have in life, and viewing the world from a broader perspective. All of these experiences are also linked to greater happiness and less stress.

Benefits Of Spending Time In Nature

Spending time in and around nature is very beneficial to our health and well-being. It calms us down when we are feeling stressed and boosts our mood when we are feeling sad. The natural world offers solace and comfort unlike what we can find in any manmade environment. We have a nature instinct known as biophilia—an innate bond we share with all creatures and plants in the natural world that we subconsciously seek. Therefore, spending time outdoors naturally reduces the level of human response to stress and allows us to recover from stressful situations more quickly.

Outdoor Volunteer Project Ideas

In addition to encouraging your children to spend more time outside enjoying nature, they can play a role in improving and protecting it through a number of hands-on volunteer projects. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Lake or Park Cleanups

Nature offers so much beauty, so it is critical that it stays pristine and garbage-free. One way that we can help to ensure this is by participating in a trash cleanup at a beach, lake, playground, or other location that needs attention. You do not even have to join an organized event to clean up the environment. I know one father in my community who has made it his mission to pick up bags of trash during his morning runs. He brings his children along either in a stroller or on their bikes and they work together to collect trash in their neighborhood. He is spreading this on social media and recently worked with a local children’s running club to collect trash as well.

Community Gardens

Look for opportunities to volunteer in a local community garden. Gardening is a relaxing activity that your children will enjoy outdoors. Community gardens increase the amount of green space, build positive community interaction, and many also provide fresh produce to those in need. Your children will enjoy planting seeds, weeding, and picking fruits and vegetables. There is a wonderful garden near my family that is run by an organization for adults with special needs. Once a year we volunteer in the garden. This year we planted seeds, removed weeds, and moved some plants to better locations in the garden. The food is then used in the organization’s kitchen to provide healthy meals to adults in the program. 

Work with Animals 

Most children love to spend time with animals, so this is a wonderful option for a family-friendly volunteer project. Caring for a lovable creature has so many positive benefits for children including teaching them responsibility and empathy, providing them with companionship, boosting their self-esteem, and showing them the importance of protecting other living creatures on our planet.

There are many ways to volunteer your time as a family to help animals outdoors, whether it be at a nature center, zoo, horse ranch, or animal shelter. For example, many animal shelters need volunteers to walk the dogs at their facility. This is a wonderful activity to do with your child–just check all the rules and age requirements with the shelter directly. A few years ago, when I moved to a new area, I volunteered at a nature center. My role was to take visitors on guided tours and point out the wildlife during our nature walk. This would be fun to do with children as well.

Tree or Flower Planting

A lovely way to make a big difference to beautify our world and reduce the impact of climate change is to volunteer to plant trees, flowers, or other vegetation in your community. This is such a positive, hands-on activity for children because they will get to see for themselves the impact they can have. Many towns host planting events and have goals to plant a certain number of trees annually. Check out Tree City USA for information in your area.

Local Farm

Contact a local farm to see if they need help with activities like weeding, planting seeds, sifting compost, digging, or watering. You can also ask about or organize your own gleaning project, which involves picking leftover crops from a farmer’s field after they have been commercially harvested and donating the produce locally. My children and I participated in a gleaning project last year and truly enjoyed picking green peppers to donate to our local food bank to help those in need.

Finding The Right Volunteer Opportunities For Kids

Finding the right family volunteer activities can be overwhelming at times. You may feel uncertain about what is expected and question whether your children can participate. It is so important that your children feel comfortable where you volunteer, get inspired by the work you do, and enjoy themselves. Without these three components, our children will not reap all the amazing benefits of volunteering outside. When searching for the appropriate activity, consider the following priorities:

Project Focus. The first step is to brainstorm as a family to decide what types of volunteer activities you are interested in doing. It is important to narrow down your choices and focus on projects that your family will get the most out of.

Organization’s Mission. Do your research before you sign up with a specific organization. Find out the group’s history and how it got started, the goals and mission, who its leaders are, and how it is funded. Check their website, search online for press coverage, and visit sites like www.charitywatch.org and www.charitynavigator.org. If possible, ask a current or past volunteer about the pros and cons of the organization. Getting a referral from someone you know is the best option, especially because your children will be participating.

Location. Search for projects that are close to home, so you do not have to drag your kids far to volunteer. 

Cost of Family Volunteer Activities. Although rare, check to see if there are any fees to volunteer. You may also want to consider any other costs involved like travel, equipment such as certain clothing required, or requested products or monetary donations.

Time Commitment. Decide how much time you have to volunteer. It could be once a week, once a month, or once a year. Start slow and gradually increase your involvement if the project is working out well. Or you may choose to volunteer with different organizations each time to expose your children to a wide variety of experiences.

Age Range Guidelines. Look for activities that your whole family can participate in. Before you commit to a project, check to see if there are any age requirements listed.

Activity Expectations. Before you show up, find out exactly what you will be doing. Will there be heavy lifting involved? Will you have to get down and dirty? Will the project be a boring and repetitive task that will make your kids annoyed?  Make sure the activity is something that your kids will actually enjoy before you invest your time. 

Fun Factor. If it isn’t an enjoyable experience for your kids, then what’s the point? Choose projects that involve your children in a fun way, but also teach and inspire them. Be sure to engage with them afterward and ask what they thought, and if they would be willing to do it again.

Some good resources for finding outdoor volunteering opportunities for kids include:

Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer/blogger and mother of two. She has written extensively about parenting, wellness, and environmental issues. You can find her at www.happysciencemom.com

Read more from Sandi Schwartz:

HABITS OF GRATITUDE

The Importance of a Hug

Protecting Kids from Cyberbullying

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