Toddlers can draw pictures to send to kids in hospitals.
For the average toddler -- whose universe doesn't extend far beyond himself, his needs and wants, and his emotions -- the idea of volunteering or doing charity work is not even in his mental repertoire. At this age, one of most toddlers' favorite words is "mine," typically repeated often and at increasingly higher volumes. By the age of 3 or 4, young kids begin to get the fact that other people have feelings, too, and that the world doesn't revolve around them all the time. But even before your little ones learn this capacity for empathy, they can help you in community efforts and begin learning that it's rewarding to do things for others.
1Explain a food or clothing drive for the needy in terms she can understand: "You know how we have plenty of food in the kitchen cupboard (or lots of clothes in our closets)? Some families don't have enough to eat, so we're going to take this food to help them so they don't get hungry and sick." Take her to the grocery store and let her buy a few extra boxes or cans of her favorite foods to take to the food pantry, so she feels like she's helping, too. Leverage a toddler's natural desire to help her parents and to emulate them into charitable involvement.
2Participate in a clean-up day. Little ones often enjoy pretending to clean, so translate that into helping at a community clean-up effort at the local park or at your church's clean-up day. Your tot can pick up trash, put toys or books in bins or sweep. Give him a rag to help wipe off counter tops, windowsills or low bookshelves. He can participate in raking leaves (and jumping in them) at an elderly neighbor's home or gathering sticks and brush to clean up the school playground or church grounds.
3Teach your toddler about giving to others at times such as birthdays and Christmas. Kids this age don't like to share, but they can be encouraged to give up toys, books or clothes they no longer use. One approach is to start a tradition that everyone in the family, including your toddler, chooses something to give to "boys and girls who don't have warm clothes to wear (or many toys to play with)" at times they receive new things. Tell your toddler that she's lucky to have so much neat stuff and that she needs to make room for it. Have her pick out a few things to share with other kids who are less fortunate.
4Give little ones crayons and construction paper and let them draw cards for residents of a senior citizens home, or to mail to troops overseas. Remind them how much they enjoy getting mail from Grandma, then explain that the cards they're making will be sent to other people to make them happy, too.