A few years ago, I was a once-a-week volunteer at a corporate and community child care center, welcomed into a charming circle of youngsters. Unlike the paid professional staff or high school and college interns, I had neither contractual obligations nor educational requirements to fulfill. Unlike visiting parents and grandparents, I was not related to any child at the center. I was simply a volunteer offering time and expertise in nature programming. They called me the Game Lady.
As a weekly visitor, I brought enthusiasm and special skills in nature-oriented games and activities. For one-half hour each Wednesday morning I led games with preschoolers. I arrived for circle time and sat cross-legged on the floor, usually with one child in my lap and one on either side clinging to my arms. I was a “stranger” but a safe one. Everyone knew the day was Wednesday because I was present. The teacher pointed to me saying, “Look who’s here today!” I raised both arms overhead in a mock cheer and everyone yelled “Game Lady!”
The kids could choose to play my games or other activities. I usually offered two or three games back-to-back at varying levels of physical and cognitive difficulty. I brought my own materials. Staff members supervised but did not interfere, except to discipline. For me the hour zipped by. This short time benefited everyone involved — children, staff, and volunteer. Children delighted in new activities led by a different face. Staff enjoyed interacting with an adult from outside the child care field.
The volunteer market offers potential as a largely untapped resource for child care centers and preschools. In our aging society, well-educated, accomplished baby boomers, retiring early and eager for volunteer work that leaves them free to travel or hold part-time jobs, have many skills and talents to offer young children. Not every retiree is interested in mall walking or golf outings. Many spend hundreds of spare hours volunteering for their churches, housing groups, libraries, and youth sports organizations.
Think your school or center might be interested in acquiring volunteers? Check out some tips for providing a successful volunteer experience:
Shop and screen. Community volunteer organizations, including retired seniors programs, can help you select and screen knowledgeable, reliable volunteers. Specify your needs: a story reader? A musician? A puppet master?
Make it a date. Agree on a specific day and time, weekly or monthly, with your volunteer. Children need variety tempered with regularity. Volunteers need flexibility to schedule around other obligations.
Be upfront and personal. Invite your volunteer to circle time or some other quiet listening time when kids can familiarize themselves with the new face. Introduce your volunteer with colorful details, such as number and ages of children or grandchildren, hobbies, trips taken, month of birth, type of house, other jobs. (Kids asked me all sorts of personal questions and seemed especially curious about where I went when I left them.)
Supervise. Make sure your volunteer has backup support from a staff member or student teacher. Remember, your volunteer is a visitor, not a babysitter or disciplinarian.
Useful resources for nature-oriented games and activities aimed at day care centers and preschools:
EarthGames: 50 Nature Games for Ages 3+
Play Lightly on the Earth: Nature Activities for Children 3 to 9 Years Old