First, I should tell you that volunteering for charity and giving back to my community are high on my priority list.
There are a thousand ways I am fortunate and giving back to those less fortunate is an important value to me.
But you wouldn’t know it by how I actually spend my time.
I always manage to procrastinate volunteering at a soup kitchen or spending an afternoon at a food pantry. Despite the good feeling of helping others that I always get from the time I spend volunteering, despite my best intentions, I put it off.
I tell myself that it will get easier to make time for giving back when my kids are older. Or I tell myself that work will settle down next month. Or I tell myself that I won’t be as tired and I can volunteer tomorrow.
But so often, tomorrow never comes.
As a result, this priority simmers unfulfilled somewhere in the back of my head and my heart.
So, one afternoon several months ago I was making my way to the cash register of a local hardware store to buy some light bulbs. Something caught my eye on one of the aisles.
I felt a flash of inspiration.
I selected 4 of these objects and took them home, excited to propose a new plan to my family.
The result has been that our trips to parks or playgrounds have become special events for Mr. B and Mr. C and especially for me. They can be for you and your family, too.
Here’s the activity, step-by-step:
1. If you don’t own a bucket, get a bucket.
A trash bag works just as well, but we already had a bucket and my kids had fun with the bucket.
A bucket is not required, but I recommend a bucket.
2. Get a trash grabber for every member of your family.
This is a trash grabber. I found them on sale that afternoon at the hardware store and spent about $20 for 4. Online they are about eight bucks a piece.
These aren’t required, but some of the thrill that my boys experience comes from getting to use these. It might be the same for your kids.
3. Bring your bucket, trash grabbers and family to a local park or playground.
Approach the activity nonchalantly, so as not to spook them. My 3 year-olds don’t often want to do the things that I want them to, so I had to slow play it like a hand of poker.
If your kids go gangbusters for eating their vegetables and brushing their teeth, then you might not need to play coy.
I carried the grabbers and bucket to the playground but left them by a bench and busied myself with pushing Mr. B and Mr. C on the swings.
Soon my patience paid off, as Mr. B wandered over to play with a trash grabber.
“Hey, Mr. B,” I called, “I see a piece of treasure over there by the slide! I wonder if you can pick it up with your grabber claw?”
4. Trash is not trash. Trash is treasure.
I never have and probably never will refer to what we do with our grabber claws and our bucket as ‘picking up trash.’
I sold it to them as a treasure hunt, a fun departure from the typical playground activities and now that’s exactly what it is to them.
We hunt together through the grass and the trees and pick up all the treasure we can find and drop it with a satisfying plunk into our bucket.
Occasionally we find actual treasure, as in the time that Mr. B discovered a cache of golf balls in a park. He was beaming with excitement when he brought us his haul. We recounted that find to each other repeatedly throughout that week.
But mostly we find discarded water bottles, ancient paper, candy wrappers, soda cans and plastic shopping bags. We pick all of it up just the same. We’re happy to find our treasures and to drop them in our bucket.
Sometimes the boys aren’t as interested; they pick up a few pieces of treasure and then go back to playing on the merry-go-round.
Most times they are as eager to hunt for treasure as I am.
One time, we spent an hour in the hot July sun loading our bucket and dumping it in the trash bin and loading it back up to the top again.
On that day the playground equipment went completely untouched. By the time we headed home I was a deeply satisfied father and a deeply satisfied citizen.
To my boys, this activity isn’t about quality family time or giving back to the community we owe so much to.
This activity is about fun.
My advice is to keep it about fun.
Most kids aren’t likely to do what you say, but they are likely to do what you do. They don’t always need to understand all of the reasons you do what you do.
When they get a little older I’ll explain to my kids the feeling I get from cleaning up a park with them. I hope they get that same feeling themselves someday.
In the meantime, I keep this activity in the rotation every week. After all, I think I have as much or more fun as they do hunting for treasure together in the park.
I hope this activity brings the same fun and satisfaction to your family.