Working together on a community service project is a surefire way to create a sense of togetherness within your school, but finding the right project is sometimes challenging. While toy collections or canned food drives teach students the value of giving, some families simply can’t afford to give. At the same time, many parents are looking for hands-on community service projects they can do with their kids, but they aren’t sure where to start.

Your parent group can help by organizing service projects that all families can participate in, regardless of their financial situation. Look for projects that will allow children to learn a new skill or learn more about their community and that will give families a clear sense of accomplishment.

Find community service ideas for kids, classrooms, and families

Tackle a Beautification Project

Few community service projects help neighborhoods as immediately as fixing up a public space. To commemorate the 120th anniversary of PS 110 in the Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood of Greenpoint, the PTA organized an event they called “Giving Back to the Future.” Parents, students, and teachers gathered to clean up the public park next to the school, removing more than 30 bags of debris.

“We laid a huge pile of mulch, and our kids planted a beautiful black oak tree,” recalls anniversary committee cochair Tiffaney McCannon. “We wanted to create a lovely and peaceful place for students of the future to hold classes and read and reflect.”

Other ways to beautify the neighborhood:

  • Assist in building a local dog run.
  • Plant flowers around sidewalk trees.
  • Paint a mural on the school walls.
  • Turn an empty lot into a community garden.

Make Something

Especially for school communities that might not have money to spare for large donations, making something offers a chance to help in a tangible way. Since 1997, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School PTO in Rockville, Md., has gathered students and parents once a month to cook and serve dinner to homeless families at a nearby shelter.

“The program teaches our students about those less fortunate and the value of giving to others,” says Caryn Malkus, who runs the program. “It helps them to apply values that they’re learning in school, like tikkun olam,” which translates to mean social activism to repair the world.

If preparing food doesn’t appeal, try one of these ideas instead:

  • Crochet hats for a children’s hospital.
  • Make no-sew blankets for a homeless shelter or Project Linus (which gives handmade blankets to children in need).
  • Decorate grocery bags for a food pantry.
  • Make valentines for nursing home residents.
  • Laminate bookmarks for the public library.

Focus on Animals

Team up with a local animal shelter, and possibilities abound. At Hickory Point Elementary in Northbrook, Ill., parent volunteers helped students make cat and dog toys; the school held a “trash to treasure” drive, collecting things like newspapers, old towels and rags, and used tennis balls for a nearby shelter’s use.

Here are more ways for families to help our four-legged friends:

  • Arrange for children to read aloud to shelter dogs.
  • Ask families to bake dog treats or walk shelter dogs.
  • Visit shelters to play with the animals, help brush them, and clean up after them.
  • Initiate a communitywide pet adoption drive.

Support Outside Charity Events

Charity events—in which families do an activity as part of a nationwide fundraising effort—offer many different ways to participate. For instance, PTOs all over the country organize groups to participate in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and some even take that relay a step further.

The Union Heights Elementary PTO in Morristown, Tenn., holds a Family Fun Night before the event, with a dunking booth (target: the principal and teachers), carnival games, and more. As the evening winds down, the community gathers to light paper bag luminaries in honor of those who are fighting or have died from cancer. The luminaries are sold in advance and decorated by the students. “We started this Family Fun Night in 2010, and since then we’ve raised over $20,000 for Relay for Life,” says PTO president Jennifer Frazier.

If you’d rather focus more on helping the local community, your school might:

  • Help unpack and sort food drive donations at a food pantry.
  • Prepare meals for volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity building project.
  • Hand out water at a fundraising race.

Encourage Good Citizenship

Community service experiences can help children learn how to participate responsibly in the world around them. For example, the Mills Lawn Elementary PTO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, has an election day tradition of holding a potluck dinner for the larger community. School families serve homemade soups, salads, and cookies to voters.

More ways to introduce kids to their responsibilities as American citizens:

  • Make thank-you cards and baked goods for the local police station and firehouse.
  • Create a tutoring program for the local refugee community.
  • Host an international night at school, inviting families to share food, song, and dance that represent their heritage.

Support Our Troops

In a similar vein, efforts aimed at members of the armed forces help children appreciate the sacrifices some citizens make. At Mark Twain Elementary in Westerville, Ohio, families worked with a local group, the Marine Corps Family Support Community, to make care packages for deployed men and women. Students crafted cards during school recess, and families gathered one evening to assemble parcels filled with items like shelf-stable snacks, gum, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and socks.

“The saying ‘Many hands make light work’ was truly shown that night,” says Melissa Rex, a parent volunteer and service club adviser. “We packed 100 care packages in just one hour. Even preschool-age siblings were able to help!”

To show support for men and women in uniform, your group can also:

Do It All at Once

Rather than choosing one major project to work on as a group, you can put together an evening devoted to service with multiple, smaller opportunities to help. At Chloe Clark Elementary in Dupont, Wash., the PTA’s Community Service Night took place just before the winter holidays. Families who could afford to donate contributed to food and gift drives, and at the event volunteers wrapped the presents—allowing those who couldn’t buy extra items to give their time instead. Also at the event, children and parents got to show off their artistic chops by making almost 200 cards for veterans, 110 place mats for Meals on Wheels, and 120 scarves for a rescue mission.

“This event is a big deal in our community, where the majority of the student population are children of military members,” says Sherry Schuld, who served as PTA treasurer in 2015-16. “It teaches our kids about causes greater than themselves, or those right next to them; thinking of people who might be a little down on their luck.”

School Community Service Projects: Details To Consider

When you’re planning community service projects for families, your efforts will go much more smoothly if you consider these factors beforehand:

  • How old are most of the children? Younger kids’ attention spans require shorter, simpler projects.

  • Are you working outdoors? Make sure you’ll have access to restrooms, sun protection, and plenty of drinking water.

  • What equipment will you need? For something like a playground cleanup, make sure you have disposable gloves and garbage bags. For a craft project, gather glue sticks, child-safe scissors, and whatever else is required. Approach local businesses to contribute materials.

  • How many volunteers will you need to coordinate the project? You’ll have plenty of families participating the day of, but you’ll also need parents who are willing to organize and take charge.

  • What can be done in advance? The more preparation you complete ahead of time, the more your group will accomplish at the event.