The Future of Volunteering: Children under the age of 14 as Volunteers

by Gabina Torres, December 2003
published with permission

Executive Summary

Children, under the age of 14, are an underutilized volunteer resource. Children have long been identified as recipients of service and currently are being seen as givers of service as well. This concept has become a mainstream issue as a result of service learning school curricula as a part of educational reform, an increasing number of youth organizations and intergenerational programs, and family volunteering. It is evident by the increasing number of volunteer opportunities for children that the population of children participating in service projects will also rise. This paper first addresses the importance of children, ages 5 to 14, serving as volunteers. The areas discussed in this section include: promotes healthy lifestyle and choices, enhances development, teaches life skills, improves the community, and encourages a lifelong service ethic. The second section of the paper identifies the options for involving children in volunteer programs and provides actual examples of volunteer programs designed for children. The four options include: individual children, groups of children, family teams, and non-related intergenerational teams. The programs are categorized by each option illustrated in tables. The organizations included are as followed: School Mentor and Tutor Programs, Habitat for Humanity, Literacy Programs, Kids Care Club, 4-H, All Stars Project, The Young Leaders' Academy, 1-800-Volunteer, Join Hands Day, Staying Alive, and The Generations as Partners. The final section of the paper addresses several management considerations for integrating children effectively into service delivery. However, the only volunteer program areas covered in this section include: orientation and training, supervision, and recognition.

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Look around your community and you may find a previously untapped source of ideas, inspiration, and an amazing power source. It is a potential resource that all communities share- the younger generation. Not the typical younger generation society identifies as teenagers, but younger than that, children between the ages of 5 and 14. In a modern society, we rarely give our youngest citizens the opportunity to contribute their ideas and talents. Even organizations that serve or advocate for children perceive them primarily as recipients of service, rather than potential contributors to their service. Yet, as society seeks to maximize available resources, can it afford to continue to overlook society's youngest citizens?

Volunteering is the perfect way for children to be welcomed as productive, active members of a community. Even though several formal volunteer assignments do require education or prior experience, a vast number of organizations offer the chance to try something new and value enthusiasm and creativity more than knowledge. As volunteers, children can demonstrate their independent abilities and can handle age-appropriate work according to their actual skill level, rather than be restricted by their age. This paper addresses the importance of children, under the age of 14, serving as volunteers, identifies the options for involving children in volunteer programs and provides actual examples of volunteer programs designed for children, and addresses several management considerations, regarding the volunteer program areas of orientation and training, supervision, and recognition, for integrating children effectively into service delivery.

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Importance of Children Serving as Volunteers

Everyone benefits from children serving as volunteers. There are several advantageous factors that children can receive and contribute to recipient organizations and to society by serving as volunteers. Volunteer projects have the potential of dramatically making a difference in the lives of their young participants. The importance of children as volunteers include the following; promotes healthy lifestyle and choices, enhances development, teaches life skills, improves the community, and encourages a lifelong service ethic.

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Promotes a Healthy Lifestyle and Choices

Children who serve others are less likely to become involved in at-risk behaviors. A research study, entitled "The Troubled Journey," conducted by the Search Institute, examined the lives of 47,000 children in 5th through 12th grades in public schools across the United States (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). The study results indicated that children who served just one hour or more a week were less likely to be involved in at-risk behaviors than those who are not active in volunteering (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). For instance, 14% of children who did not volunteer frequently used alcohol; however, only 7% of children who volunteered used alcohol (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). In addition, 13% of children who do not participate in volunteer activities skipped school in comparison to only 7% of children who participated in volunteer activities (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

Why does volunteering have a deterring impact on negative behaviors? A possible reason why volunteering deters negative behaviors is that volunteer projects provide positive, structured activities for children, and children who are involved in these kinds of positive activities are less likely to be involved in negative behaviors(Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Volunteering also nourishes caring values as children relate to and empathize with others, and individuals who care about others are less likely to be involved in negative behaviors (Phalen, 2003). Moreover, having the opportunity to interact with their peers and adults coupled with a positive environment counterbalances negative influences that could result in poor choices (Phalen, 2003).

Since volunteering appears to promote health life-styles and discourages negative choices, it is also an important resource for addressing some of the pressing issues youth face, such as teenage pregnancy, school dropouts, substance abuse, and violence. According to a Children's Defense Fund report, "The experience gained through volunteering or service can make a lasting difference, giving young people a sense of purpose and a reason to remain in school, strive to learn, and avoid too-early-pregnancy (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993)." With children engaging in volunteering opportunities these experiences may deter them from engaging in negative behaviors or making poor choices, which lead to youth issues such as teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.

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Enhances Development

The National Assessment of Experiential Education (N.A.E.E.), of which volunteering is a significant component of these programs, conducted an evaluation that systematically evaluated 27 experiential programs which included 40,000 students (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Experiential education generally defined is an emphasis of learning through experience, and the curriculum focuses on children learning and applying the material at the same time (Lewis, 2002). According to the N.A.E.E., children participating in these programs are more likely to heighten their developmental growth in the following areas: psychological, social, and intellectual (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

Psychological development is enhanced by increasing self-esteem, responsibility, and interest in learning (Phalen, 2003). Furthermore, children who volunteer develop positive self-confidence (Lewis, 2002). The N.A.E.E. found that children gained both in moral reasoning and self-esteem (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

Social development is impacted by children developing new social skills and a stronger sense of duty or responsibility for social welfare (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). A possible reason for a stronger sense of duty is that through volunteer experiences children are able to see themselves as significant in the lives of others, and recognize that they have the ability to make a difference (Lewis, 2002). In addition, the N.A.E.E. noted that children in the programs showed greater motivation to take action, and developed more positive attitudes towards adults and other children (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

Intellectual development is impacted by the learning opportunities provided by volunteering, and the opportunities children have to exercise their intellectual abilities (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Volunteering frequently expands an individual's intellectual capabilities because volunteer activities, often times, presents new material and opportunities to apply the newly learned material. The N.A.E.E. found that three-fourths of the children in the experimental-learning programs reported learning more than in traditional education settings (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Moreover, the N.A.E.E. noted that the most valuable programs that enhance intellectual development are the programs which allow children to reflect on or process their experiences (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

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Teaches Life Skills

Volunteering can nurture important life skills and values in children. Children participating in volunteer activities are rewarded with new skills and perspectives. This value can be particularly important in working with children who have fewer opportunities to develop skills and interests, such as those in low-income urban areas (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999). Volunteer opportunities stimulate skills necessary for a productive adulthood. Skills, which many children may not see modeled in their daily lives, may include: responsibility for task completion, punctuality, reliability, good grooming, and getting along with others (DiGeronimo, 1995).

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Improves the Community

Volunteering is the perfect way for children to be welcomed as productive, active members of a community. Through volunteering, children can become a valuable contributor to their constantly changing society. As a report from the William T. Grant Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship argues, "There is virtually no limit to what young people can do, no social need they cannot help meet, and giving young people the opportunities to serve enable them to become contributors, problem-solvers, and partners with adults in improving their communities and larger society (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993, pg 21)." As children in a community become more involved in volunteering and as it is seen as more common, children will increasingly be viewed as resources, rather than helpless or non-contributors (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). As a trend of children serving as volunteers emerges, volunteering could become a norm for both children and adults (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). As a result, the community becomes a true community, where all individuals of that community share a common vision and watch out for one another (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). In a community climate, such as this, children and adults prosper together.

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Encourages a Lifelong Service Ethic

Getting children involved in volunteering has a long-term payoff. Early volunteering experiences empower and create a lasting influence well into adulthood. For instance, Hillary Clinton credits much of her concern for low-income families and their children from her visits to inner-city Chicago with her church youth group (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Developmental theorists also suggest that experiences during childhood and early adolescence have a powerful shaping force on lifelong values and sense of purpose (Lewis, 2002).

Furthermore, data from the Effective Christian Education study further solidifies the significance of volunteering early in life (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). This study utilized survey responses from adults, who were currently volunteering, to examine the frequency which they were involved in these types of volunteer activities as children (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). The study determined that the best predictors of adult involvement were their experiences in volunteering or helping projects as children between the ages of 5-12, or adolescents between the ages of 13-18 (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Additionally, the study noted that adults who were active in social justice issues tend to have participated in service projects as children and/or teenagers (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). The inference is that early experience with giving has long-term effects, setting a pattern that can carry over into adulthood.

Moreover, studies have shown the importance of involving children in volunteering early than adolescence. Many opportunities target teenage children, ages 14 to 18, but research has implicated that the earlier children are involved in volunteering, the higher the probability of them volunteering during adolescence and possibly later in life (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). According to Search Institute research on 47,000 students in public schools, it found that volunteering declines dramatically across the adolescent's years for both males and females (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Targeting children during the ages of 10-11 or even younger will likely reduce the erosion in service values and behaviors (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993). Making volunteer opportunities available for this age group will solidify and ground the value of giving within a child's emerging self-concept (Benson & Roehlkepartain, 1993).

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Volunteer Programs Designed for Children

Many organizations have realized the potential for involving children, under the age of 14, in a volunteer program. It is evident by the increasing number of volunteer opportunities for children that the population of children participating in service projects will continue to rise. There are four options to involve children under the age of 14 as volunteers (Ellis, 1983). These options are taken into consideration when an organization is in the planning phase of implementing a children's component in their volunteer program (Ellis, 1991). The four options for involvement include: individual children, groups of children, family teams, and non-related intergenerational teams (Ellis, 1991).

For a more general information regarding the principles of a creating a successful volunteer program, click on the link below to order a copy of From the Top Down a book written by Susan Ellis.

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Individual Children

Under this option children can be recruited individually for special abilities and to match certain needs (Ellis, 1991). This also allows for flexibility in scheduling and the program director is able to focus more heavily on direct supervision (Ellis, 1991). There are several organizations which recruit individual children for specific assignments within their agency. Examples of programs which utilize individual children are schools and service organizations.

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Groups of Children

Under this option recruitment, assignments and some supervision responsibilities can be shared with the group's adult leader (Ellis, 1991). A benefit of using this option is that the children can be scheduled all at once, allowing for concentrated supervision at planned intervals (Ellis, 1983). In addition, training time is reduced and larger projects can be undertaken (Ellis, 1991). Another benefit of a group is that members motivate each other (Ellis, 1983). Examples of programs which utilize groups of children are youth organizations, serving learning programs, and school classes, which often seek community service projects (Ellis, 1991). There are several youth organizations which implement this option in their programs.

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Family Teams

With the growing popularity of family volunteering, many organizations are currently constructing volunteer programs which incorporate parents and their children. The option is growing since parents have limited time to spend with their children and are always searching for ways to utilize this time creatively. This option recruits both parent and child to volunteer together for the same assignment (Voluntary Action Leadership, Spring 1983). Variations can also be used such as whole families, teams of older and younger siblings, or grandparents and their grandchildren (Ellis, 1991). Theoretically this option is the easiest to manage because of the additional adult supervision and guidance provided by the parent (Ellis, 1991). An issue to address before utilizing this option is to provide an opportunity for the child to contribute independently because of the established parental relationship (Ellis, 1991).

There are countless ways families can volunteer in their local community. For more information regarding project ideas, visit This website highlights some successful projects and offers an opportunity to share your own. provides volunteers with a direct connection to local volunteer opportunities that match interests, skills, and the common desire to make a difference, which is also part of the Points of Light Foundation.

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Non-related Intergenerational Teams

This option pairs volunteers from two different age groups (Ellis, 1991). Examples of non-related intergenerational teams are pairing young children with adolescents or senior citizens with children to complete a volunteer assignment (Ellis, 1991). This option is also useful to maximize child supervision, while allowing equal contribution (Ellis, 1983). Increasing numbers of programs are incorporating non-related intergenerational teams.

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Management Considerations

While organizations may agree with the importance of involving children as volunteers, it is a different matter to put into practice. The first step is to be willing to experiment with ways to utilize children in an organization and to adapt existing administrative procedures with the special considerations of this age group (Ellis, 1983). Frequently the uncertainties of working with children prohibit organizations from incorporating children into their volunteer programs, or the concept never gets tried. As with all programs' challenges, the steps of involving children as volunteers become manageable when examined one at a time (Ellis, 1983). The implementation follows the same process, in the same sequence, as developing a volunteer program for adults (Ellis, 1983). The same good management techniques apply to children as to adults. However, they may need to be modified or adapted to appropriately relate to children. The program areas that are addressed include: orientation and training, supervision, and recognition. Management considerations will be given only regarding these three volunteer program areas. The areas covered are not inclusive and there are other areas to consider prior to implementing a volunteer program. For more information regarding other volunteer program areas on the subject of youth volunteering, visit the Points of Light Foundation's website. This website offers many valuable books regarding program management involving children.

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Orientation and Training

A consideration regarding providing orientation and training to children is to come up with a creative way in order to convey all the necessary information, so that it is easier for a young mind to grasp. For instance, utilizing toys to convey to children what the agency does or have the personnel leading the orientation and/or training session dress-up in a clown suit to appeal to the children. In addition, an organization could utilize a teacher to help assist with creating an age-appropriate training program (Ellis, 1991).

Additional techniques have been established by professionals in the field of volunteerism. Susan Ellis, president of Energize Associates, a Philadelphia-based consulting firm specializing in volunteerism, identified techniques for appropriate orientation and training (Ellis, 1991). She suggested utilizing small groups, no more than ten children to a group, for orientation and training in order to limit the size of the trainee group (Ellis, 1983). Utilizing small groups encourages participation and assists the program manager in getting to know each child (Ellis, 1983). Another technique is to use visual aids for orientation and training (Ellis, 1991). Ellis advises to freely use visual aids in order for children to have something to look at while sitting through orientation and training (Ellis, 1991). For instance, illustrative posters, cartoons, puppets, or video tapes are all useful visual aids (Ellis, 1983). Even providing hand-outs so that the children can refer back to is a concrete tool to expand on the information presented (Ellis, 1991). Keep in mind when constructing these hand-outs to use large print for easy visibility and simple vocabulary making it easy for children to understand (Ellis, 1991).

In regards to the tour of the facility, allow plenty of time for the tour and provide structure, but also do not make it too rigid in order to allow children to satisfy their curiosity (Ellis, 1991). A useful method to orient children on where to find materials or facilities they may need is to create an activity to help them identify it during the actual tour (Ellis, 1991). For instance, providing flash cards with various pictures of the office equipment or the restroom will help children identify these items during the tour and learn their locations.

Additionally, the scheduling of orientation and training is important to consider. It is important to remember that children do not have the attention span of an adult. Whereas orientation and training can be done during an extensive amount of time for adult volunteers, it is most effective to schedule children in time slots of not more than three hours (Ellis, 1991). If adult volunteers have difficulty seating for an extended period of time, children will have an even harder time. Within the three hour time period, it would be most beneficial to allot a break every forty-five minutes, which is also dependent on age (Ellis, 1991). Allowing multiple breaks allow children the opportunity to release energy and revitalize themselves. Just as adults process information more effectively while allotting time for breaks, this is even more important in relation to children. Also consider providing snacks for the children since children tend to need nourishment every 2 to 3 hours.

A final consideration regarding providing orientation and training to children is to involve parents (Ellis, 1991). In order for an organization to set itself up for the best possible success incorporating children as volunteers, it is vital that parents be involved in the orientation and training process. While it is important to address an agency's expectations about work habits, dress code, attendance, and appropriate behavior with the children serving as volunteers, it is equally important to share this information with the parents (Ellis, 1991). Parents need to understand what is expected from their children in order to prevent any misconception regarding the volunteer activity. This gives parents opportunities to express any concern or ask questions. Providing the opportunity for the parent(s) to be fully informed makes it easier for the parent to sign the permission notice. This also guarantees that the child will attend the training or orientation since the parent will also be there.

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Supervision is what makes the project function daily. The supervisor must include: a plan for manageable sequence of tasks, give instructions, prepare work, provide encouragement, reinforce success, recognize accomplishments, and problem solve (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2001). A common misconception regarding children is that they need constant supervision (Ellis, 1991). While this may be true regarding younger children, older children are quite autonomous once they are trained and accustomed to their assignments (Ellis, 1983). Children are capable of evaluating how their progress is going and continuous peer assessment assists in keeping projects on task. This is not to say that a child should not know who to contact with questions or in case of an emergency, but constant supervision may not be necessary (Ellis, 1983).

An essential consideration is to be certain that the individual responsible for supervising children volunteers is receptive to the idea of children volunteers and also enjoys children (Ellis, 1991). A disastrous result is likely to happen if a supervisor does not enjoy working with children or is not open to the idea of incorporating children as volunteers. Furthermore, providing sensitivity training or instructional education on working with children is a key element for a supervisor to learn how to appropriately work and respond to children (Ellis, 1991). Children are often sensitive to what adults tell them and it would have a harmful affect if information was not relayed carefully. In addition, flexibility would be an attribute highly recommended in order to incorporate children as volunteers into an organization. Organizations that do not value flexibility would probably not do well incorporating children because children often need more opportunities and freedom to exercise their creativity and ideas.

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A key guideline regarding recognition is to first, acknowledge volunteer's accomplishments and secondly, be consistent at it (Class notes, December 3, 2003). It is important to notice and praise volunteers' efforts and to do so continuously. Furthermore, be certain that the recognition technique, idea, or event is applicable to children. It is important to know your target audience and to keep them in mind when constructing a recognition idea or event (Vineyard & McCurley, 2001). Keeping focused on your target audience helps ensure that the recognition idea or event will be appealing. In addition, what you do or how you recognize one group of volunteers should be distributed equally among other volunteer groups (Vineyard & McCurley, 2001). For example, everyone enjoys food so do not exclude adult volunteers simply because you are throwing a party only involving balloons, cake, and punch for your children volunteers.

In addition to recognizing children volunteers within an organization, there are opportunities to honor them beyond the realm of the organization. Nominating children volunteers for service awards or service recognition publications are other methods to recognize volunteer efforts. For example, there are many corporate scholarships honoring childrens' service.

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Children are the most valuable source of volunteerism in society today. Unfortunately, children under the age of fourteen are a significantly underutilized resource of volunteers. It is important to prepare children to perpetuate the tradition of volunteerism that has shaped American history. By participating in volunteer activities, children experience the satisfaction and other benefits that are a result from freely offering their services to help others. Some of the benefits children receive as a result of volunteering may include: an opportunity for learning, developing life skills, and civic responsibility. When volunteering becomes a common part of a child's life at an early age, it adds an important dimension to the process of growing up and, ultimately, shapes the adult that child will become.

Children are currently being seen as givers of service. This concept has become a more mainstream issue as a result of the rising number of service-learning programs, intergenerational programs, and family volunteering. Another effort that has brought attention to children serving as volunteers is the increasing number of youth service organizations. It is evident by the increasing number of volunteer opportunities for children that the population of children participating in service projects will also rise; whether as individuals, in groups, or with their family members. As the population of children volunteers increase, it is important for a program coordinator to consider proper management techniques to incorporate children effectively into their volunteer programs. Management issues of training and orientation, supervision, and recognition are just some key issues to consider when developing a volunteer program designed for children volunteers.

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