25 doable ways to volunteer at your kid's school

Even the most schedule-challenged parent can pitch in with these 25 painless ways to volunteer.

Illustrations: Jordan Sondler. Photo: Stocksy United

We know you can’t finagle a day off for every field trip to the museum. Or your shift work prevents you from committing to a regular volunteering gig. We get that it’s tough to make it to school council meetings with a new baby or toddler at home. But with a new year starting, the pressure will be on to donate at least some of your time or talent to your kid’s school.

It’s not that you don’t want to be involved; after all, getting to know the staff and your kid’s friends gives you the inside scoop into his world. But sometimes it feels like you’re asked to do a zillion things, and you just can’t swing it all. Cue the busy-parent guilt and aversion to raising your hand.

This year, take some time before the flood of volunteer notices starts to figure out what type of involvement you’re interested in, so you’ll know which opportunities to jump on and which ones to leave for another keener.

To inspire you, we asked moms, dads and educators for ideas on how to get involved–beyond field trips and bake sales–and came up with 25 totally doable ways to volunteer at your kid’s school, no matter where your talents and time constraints lie.

1. Manage paperwork
You’ve got an hour while watching Better Call Saul, right? Sandy Choe, a mom of two boys, organizes Scholastic book orders from home. Let your kid’s teacher and your school’s council know you’re available to take on some paper- or keyboard-button pushing at home.

2. Be kneady
Pull out your cream of tartar, flour, vegetable oil, salt and food colouring to mix homemade playdough to donate to your school’s kindergarten room (but check with the teachers first to make sure it’s needed).

3. Shop in bulk
Mom-of-three Tai So stocks up on juice, napkins and paper plates when they’re on sale and brings in the goods for school events like barbecues. The school council or office may reimburse you if they have specifically asked for supplies, or you can choose to donate the items.

4. Gather toys, games and books
Recycle your kids’ untouched or underused toys by donating them to your school as fair prizes. Teachers might also appreciate used games for indoor-recess days. Or, with your principal’s permission, start a school-wide book drive—label cardboard boxes and set them out in your school’s foyer when you drop off your kids. Spread the word via the school newsletter that you’re collecting used books for the classrooms.

5. Collect for gifts
Not sure what to pick up as a holiday or end-of-school gift for your kid’s teacher? Offer to collect money (e-transfers make this job easy) and purchase a gift or gift card on behalf of the class’s parents.

6. Pitch in with an enrichment program
Watch for a note home asking for volunteers for events like Hour of Code or Scientists in School.

7. Share your neat-freak tendencies
Offer to come in and wash down the art sinks, scrub out the class pet’s cage or aquarium, or help sort through the paperwork with students during end-of-term desk cleanouts.

8. Show off your job
Got an interesting gig? Speak to your kid’s class on career day or host an informal classroom talk on careers. Your kid will beam with pride, and you’ll have a chance to inspire the future generation.

9. Lend your hands
One-off events like fun fairs and movie nights are low-pressure and all-hands-on-deck, which is great for first-timers. (Your school or parent council will call out for volunteers ahead of time.) “Every year on Shrove Tuesday I go in and cook pancakes our school’s breakfast,” says mom-of-three Natalie Chenard.

10. Get nitpicky
While not glamorous, the school-wide lice check is a seriously important event and, not surprisingly, often needs extra hands. Bonus: You’ll have no problem spotting lice at home.

11. Serve lunch
Many schools host pizza or hot lunches—some do it weekly, some monthly. Donate an hour of your day on a regular basis to hand out slices of cheesy pizza to hungry students.

12. Shelve books
School librarians welcome the help getting books back on shelves or inputted into the computer system. Bonus: You’ll be like a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on what kids are talking about these days, and you’ll get an inside look at what types of books, graphic novels and other media they’re interested in.

13. Wrangle the drop-off
Many schools are adopting “kiss ’n’ ride” programs to manage morning car traffic. Don a fluorescent vest and help kids get out of their cars and into the school safely.

14. Prep a project
Drop a note to your kid’s teacher to tell him you’re available to come in at lunch or in the morning to help set up a special class activity.

15. Be a reading buddy
“When my kids were in kindergarten, I’d go in to help during reading time,” says Chenard. Classroom help is needed all through elementary school.

16. Dig in your green thumb
Many schools have gardens growing on their properties that are left without anyone to maintain them in summer months. Spend some time weeding in the evening, or take part in a one-time initiative like a fall or spring cleanup, which usually happens on the weekend.

17. Join the council
Parent Advisory Council or School Advisory Council meetings are usually held after work and some provide free child care. Executive committee roles like president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer are often held by parents who have been on council for a few years, but new parents are always welcome–they provide a fresh perspective and can offer input and support. If council feels like too much of a commitment, find out what subcommittees–which usually demand less time and have fewer meetings–need help.

18. Offer your insight
Schools are often looking for feedback from parents about academics, programming and other initiatives, like how to improve their eco certification. For example, at Dundas Valley Secondary School in Dundas, Ont., principal Em Del Sordo is trying to build parent engagement by asking for feedback from a group of parents about student learning and achievement. “If we want to support kids more in math at home, we ask specific parents what resources they would need to help their kids with that.” Watch for notices about this type of initiative in your email or via a letter home.

19. Use your grammar
Are you wonderful with words? Offer your keen eyes up to your school council for proofreading and editing school communications, like weekly or monthly newsletters, or notices for parents.

20. Help with tests
Chenard assists kids who have trouble reading or writing with standardized testing. “Some students may have a learning disability and need someone to read them the test or write down the answers for them,” she says. Check with your school to see if you can offer one-on-one help like this in the classroom.

21. Get outside
“I volunteer for yard supervision at lunch recess,” says Chenard. She circles the primary schoolyard to be available for kids who need assistance. Talk to your principal to find out if this would be useful at your school.

22. Lend your language
If you speak a second language, you can help welcome families to your school and provide translation or interpretation services to those new to Canada.

23. If you’ve got a great idea, pitch it!
And new projects always need help to get off the ground. “I lead a walking-school-bus route for our school,” says Sara Middleton, a mom of two boys. “Our school council wanted to have more active and safe transportation to school, and when the idea of a walking group that picks kids up along the way was pitched, I jumped on the chance to give it a try in our neighbourhood.”

24. Pull on a whistle
Got some energy to burn? If your kid is involved in athletic extra curriculars, reach out to your school’s physical education program and offer up your services. While staff generally run the school athletics and teams, many are appreciative of an extra set of hands to run practices, warm up pint-sized athletes, watch line changes at a soccer meet or keep track of incoming times for cross-country events. Or, like Choe, you can clean up and re-sew the school jerseys when needed.

25. Get behind the wheel
School sports mean tournaments. So’s kids play games at different area schools, so she and other parents share the job of transporting the kids to the events.

Not sure where to start?
Beginning as a volunteer at a new school can feel a little like being the minor niner in high school again. So where exactly do you begin?

If your school has a welcome kit, dig deep into that pack of paperwork to see if there’s a volunteer handbook. Often this offers some direction as to what help the school needs, the rules and regulations for volunteers, and more.

No kit available? Let your child’s teacher know you want to put some time in at the school. “Teachers are pretty receptive to that,” says Sandy Choe, Toronto mom of two boys. If your teacher doesn’t want help in the classroom—some don’t—touch base with your school’s principal, vice-principal or school council to see if you can help out elsewhere.

Also, many schools require that you have a police check done before you step into a school to offer your services. If that’s the case, start that ball rolling as soon as possible: In some areas, it can take a few months.

Read more:
Field trips: What you need to know before volunteering
Volunteering in the classroom: Not for the faint of heart
5 tips for surviving class trips

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