Want to skip straight to the DIY Advent Calendar tutorial? Just scroll about half way down.
Want more intentional Christmas traditions for your kiddos? Perhaps start with 31+ Non-Toy Gift Ideas for Children.
Ah…. Advent calendars. Those lovely calendars that help us celebrate the Christmas season to the fullest and prepare our minds and hearts for the coming of the Christ Child….
Except that most Advent calendars don't. Most Advent calendars these days are awash with chocolate and countdown activities, but they have nothing to do with Christmas itself.
So, I wanted to create something for my kiddos that would fill the season with a bit more intentionality and thoughtfulness. We already had an Advent calendar that walks through the birth story of Christ, so I wanted something that would help them engage more deeply in service to others, especially since the cold winter months are also packed with family holidays, which are often some of the most difficult for people who are either lonely or at the ends of their means.
Also, there's something important here: One of the lessons I want to teach my children until they understand it deep in their bones is that while service to others is as much a part of life as breathing, in serving others, we don't get to think we're better than they are. We give merely because we're human. Everything we have is a gift that has been given to us and we are merely stewards of it – and thus, in thankfulness, we give generously to those who have needs.
Also, we're not devoid of hurts and needs either. At every stage of life's journey, there is ALWAYS something we can give – be it meager or overwhelming – and there is ALWAYS a need we need met ourselves. I think this is overwhelmingly essential to understand, because it allows us to give generously out of whatever we have while also recognizing our common humanity.
Just for Advent?
So, this activity is for Advent, wherein each of the 25 days before Christmas we mark the day by doing some act of service.
However, I realized as I was creating it that I wanted something meaningful to do with my kiddos at other times of year as well. Thus, I've listed more than 25 activities, so that we could also do it as a Lenten activity (which has 40+ days) or even a Spring Break or mid-summer activity.
Besides, now that I'm sharing it with you all, different activities will be meaningful or do-able by different families, so the more options, the better. 🙂
So, in this post I'll outline a few ideas for service projects, give a DIY tutorial for one way to organize your service projects into an Advent calendar, and toss a few other tidbits in along the way, just for good measure. 😉
The Activity: A Simple Daily Service Project for Kids
This service project can be adapted to any length and it's quite simple: kids select one activity to serve or bless another person each day.
I wanted to do this as an opportunity to practice two things:
1. There are many many ways to serve others, and they don't have to be big. The habit we need to be in is seeking to bless and serve others in all times in life, whether that's giving a big smile to someone who looks like they're having a bad day or curling up with a friend who needs a listening ear or delivering a meal to the family of someone who just had surgery.
2. “Giving” isn't just about gifts – and the gifts we DO give are to honor and nurture the relationship we have with that person. At Christmas, our culture has become increasingly infatuated with gifts that are physical, but in fact, it's only been in recent history that Christmas has included tangible gifts at all. Until just a few decades ago, Christians celebrated Christmas by gathering together as families or communities to sing, rest from work, and in many cases, feast. If any gifts were exchanged, they were very small and not a focus of the gathering at all. Somehow we've gotten it all twisted in the last couple of generations!
Obviously, #2 is an easy correlation at Christmas because of the gift-giving that's rather central in everyone's thinking at that point, but it's still a good point at any other time of year as well. No matter the reason, gifts – including acts of service – are always given to honor and celebrate the recipient.
So, how do you use the Advent Calendar?
First, chose a length of time for the project, such as 25 Days of Service as a countdown to Christmas.
Second, choose a small, intentional activity for each day. This may take a bit of time to research, but there are a few ideas below to get you started.
Third, decide how you want to organize and mark off your days. There's a DIY tutorial below on how I designed our Advent calendar with a photo idea for one more, but seriously – the sky is the limit on your creativity. If you don't like the ideas below, just type “Advent calendar” into any search engine or Pinterest and you'll have more ideas in 30 seconds than you'll know what to do with. (Not that any of these ideas are a TRUE Advent calendar, but somehow that term has become ubiquitous and synonymous with “countdown to Christmas,” so it's an effective way to find ideas for this kind of project.)
A few ideas for your list of service projects
In our home, we have young children and are in a season of life that is overflowing, so there were three criteria on my list as I chose a schedule and activities for our family:
- I wanted to find simple tasks that could easily be completed each day,
- I wanted activities that didn't require lots of driving around,
- I wanted activities that were free or didn't require much money.
Obviously, if you have older children or have the time and transportation to be doing lots of volunteer projects, go for it. Those are powerful experiences, but we're currently not at that stage of life, so I looked for ideas that would be applicable to preschoolers to middle elementary.
Here are just a few ideas to get you started. For more ideas, google “Random Acts of Kindness for Kids” or see our Growing Thoughtful Children Pinterest board for inspiration.
This is the start of the list I came up with for Advent – and remember, it's just a collection of ideas! There are SO many more. Please add your ideas in too!
Scroll to the end of the list to download these ideas so you can place them in your Advent calendar or hang a Service Project Fun Sheet on your refrigerator to keep you motivated all month long!
(Got other great ideas? Share them in the comments or on our Facebook page and I'll periodically update this article!)
- Decorate an online tree for #ShareATree (this one is SO simple and delightfully fun) – for this project, we also did a unit study on trees
- Record an audiobook for Librivox
- Make thank you cards – design and create the thank you cards you'll write as soon as Christmas Day is over OR to have on hand for birthdays and other times a heartfelt “thank you” is needed
- With your child, fund a $25 micro-loan via Kiva.org and help them track how the loan is paid back. This is a FANTASTIC way to interface lessons about generosity, financial stewardship, and economics.
- Deliver a hot chocolate mix or baking mix to someone who lives alone – there are lots of great recipes for make-ahead mixes in my cookbook, The DIY Pantry, or on our Pinterest board for homemade pantry staples
- Deliver hot drinks to someone who's been outside in the cold all day
- Participate in an Angel Tree (Prison Fellowship)
- Buy a goat/bees/etc for a family in need – World Vision, Partners International, Compassion International, and other wonderful organizations coordinate these kind of gifts
- Pack a Christmas shoebox for Operation Shoebox
- Make a Giving List – rather than write a list of gifts you'd like to receive, write out a list of gifts you'd like to give
- Write a “Gifts We Already Have” list – start a list naming all the gifts you already have (obviously, this is more than listing just physical stuff – this is a list of blessings!) Post it in a central location and make it easy for anyone to contribute to regularly throughout Advent, spring break, or whatever your period of service is
- Make “on the go” bags to give to those who ask for handouts (and be sure to read what homeless people really want in care bags)
- Draw a cheery picture for someone who's ill or grieving
- Eat at least one meal a week as a family at a community meal or shelter to give opportunity to talk and share with people in hard situations. If appropriate, volunteer ahead of time to help serve meals as well.
- Choose new or gently used toys to give to a toy drive
- Create a Thank You basket (and see if you can empty it by Christmas!) – at the beginning of Advent, fill a basket with small gifts and supplies to write thank you notes (or with small children, pre-made thank you notes!) and every time you have opportunity to interface with someone who does you a service – the mail deliverer, the garbage collectors, the recycling truck driver, etc – grab a little gift or write them a thank you note to honor their service and tell you how much you appreciate them
- Read at a local nursing home
- Sing carols with a shut-in
- Deliver or donate blankets to those who sleep in the cold – If you feel unsafe or uncomfortable delivering blankets yourself, take the blankets in person to a shelter, where they can be distributed via people who have on-going relationships with homeless and low-income men, women, and children
- Make a “grateful jar” for each family member and whenever you think of something you're grateful for about that family member, write it down and place it in their jar
- Choose 2 or 3 non-perishable food items to donate to a local food bank. Or, if you've got the time and energy, help your child organize a food drive in your neighborhood or at their school.
- Mail a card to a relative that you have not seen in a while
- Go on a trash walk and help clean up your neighborhood
- Help clean up after coffee at church
- Create a card to send to a hospitalized child
- Sit with a child who needs a friend at lunch
- Make a blanket for a child in need of a blankie
- Adopt and partner with a low-income family via The Giving Tree – a Giving Tree pairs families with families in your area who can't afford gifts for their children.
- Deliver cookies to the office staff of a local charity
- Gather school supplies to donate to your child's class
- Help a sibling with their chores
- Bring extra bottles of bubbles to the playground and distribute them
- Weed a neighbor's flower bed
- Sweep the walkway, shovel the sidewalk, or rake the yard for a neighbor or someone in need
- Make pretty bookmarks to leave in library books – be sure to write a note to tell that the bookmark is intended to be used and shared!
- Offer to carry someone's groceries at the grocery store
- Clean up trash in a park or playground
- Together choose an unused toy to donate to a charity, such as Toys for Tots
- Send a birthday card or Christmas card to a missionary or to a member of their family
- Gather games to donate to children at a children's hospital
- Make a meal for someone
- Help neighbors bring in their trash cans on trash day
- Leave a bag of quarters – with a note – on a washer at a laundromat or on a parking meter
- Donate food to an animal shelter – it's a good idea to call ahead to see what type of food is needed or if there are special needs
- Donate DVDs to a local hospital (be sure they're appropriate for public viewing)
- Participate in or organize a work bee at church, at the local community center, or in your neighborhood
- Make a card and deliver it with flowers to an elderly neighbor
- Write thank you cards to your teachers
- Donate new pajamas to a local youth shelter
- Leave something special for your mail carrier
- Donate books to a library or a doctor's office
- Deliver cases of bottled water to a local shelter or the Red Cross – you could also call ahead and ask if there are other emergency supplies that would be helpful to donate
- Attend a fair trade sale and talk with your kids about the importance of knowing where your goods come from and how they're made – you can shop the online Green Christmas Marketplace for ethical, eco-friendly goods as well
How to Create Your Advent Calendar / Service Project Calendar
To put together this service project, you can use ANY Advent calendar you'd like, say, with little paper bags or fancy envelopes or hanging on a string with some pretty paper (see above)….. the sky is the limit on your creativity on this one.
However, I really really love the clean look of the clothesline-style Advent calendar that's in the photo at the top of this article (see it here), so that's the one I'll demonstrate today. This is essentially just a deeply set frame, some eyehooks, and framing wire, so if you have one ounce of crafting ability (which is more than I have), you could easily make this into a fun DIY project.
Since I want to use this frame for multiple purposes for multiple years, I wanted to be able to change the backing at any time, so I created the option for a removable back. First I sliced a wine cork into rounds, then hot glued the pieces around the inset section of the back of the frame, and finally stapled a piece of fabric onto the sections of cork. I used jersey knit one year and felt another, but any decorative piece of fabric would work here!
After the frame was complete, I cut pieces of paper that fit the season into small strips – in this case, paper grocery bags and Christmas scrapbooking paper – and clipped them to the wires.
Inside each folded-over strip, I placed one day's service project and the kiddos got to choose a random piece of paper each day. In the future, I may control that a bit more, as there were days when we drew “visit a shut-in” when it was an already extremely busy day, whereas the #ShareATree activity would have been a perfect activity to fit the day.
So, that's it! Design a system that works for you, choose a few activities, and you're good to go. 🙂