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How to Ethically Volunteer with Children

August 1st 2023

There are many volunteering programs that involve working with children. Most bring a positive difference to communities, but the most important thing to make sure is that the programs are ethical.

In 2019 after I finished college, I went on a volunteering program in a school in Zanzibar. I spent most of my time constructing a wall to prevent animals and bikes from going onto the playground, and I painted the classrooms- it was an exceptional, meaningful experience. But for the first couple of days, I was told to teach English to a class of 200 students (which I was not prepared to do). Before I started the program, I had a DBS check done but I had zero experience in teaching. 

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I felt incredibly uncomfortable doing this at first- my initial thoughts were: “What if I mess up? I have no idea how to teach a class of children…”. Luckily, it went well and the children loved our lessons about ‘the animal kingdom’ and the dances we created. But I left the country questioning the ethics of many other volunteering programs available to us.

Children all over the world are deprived of love, support and an education. That’s why volunteering is so vital in improving the lives of young people. 

Before volunteering around children, there are a few aspects to be kept in mind:

The problem behind volunteering with children

Seeing children understand a new concept or going to a cleaner, safer school due to our work was an unmatched feeling; the difference we made to their lives was the most important aspect of my trip. However, it is probably the most difficult area of volunteering to get into, as there are rules on safeguarding and wellbeing for the children involved. 

As well as this, there is the issue of hidden motivations. Do you want to volunteer just to give back to the community/make a difference to people’s lives? Or is there a hidden reason? It’s okay to volunteer to gain experience or find happiness, but there is an overriding stigma behind people volunteering with children. Some may assume they are trying to ‘look good’ on social media without doing a lot to help. 

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Going into a program with the right motivations will ensure you’re making a positive difference and you’re putting the wellbeing of the children first.

How long is your program?

Is the program more than a few weeks long? This is potentially a better way forward when being around young children. As you may know, children can become attached very quickly to someone new in their lives and it could cause more harm than good to leave so suddenly after this attachment is created.

Are you getting the proper training?

It’s an incredible experience being able to support a child’s education. In Western countries like the UK, a vast amount of training needs to be completed with good references before they can care for children due to safeguarding and safety rules. This shouldn’t be any different in other countries. If you are unsure of how to approach teaching a class, it’s okay to ask for help and training before it begins! It makes the process more enjoyable for both yourself and the children.

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WorkingAbroad’s stance on volunteering with children

As of June 2018, we ended our own volunteer projects that were related to children. This included child care, teaching, special needs and other community-related volunteer projects. While we have visited the majority of these projects to experience first-hand and know the project partners that we work with, it was not possible for us to be there in person to make sure that safeguarding principles and child welfare policies were upheld. We therefore decided to gradually phase out our own child-related projects and remove similar projects from our volunteer database which were being offered by third-party volunteer operators as well.

However, there are many projects that we work with that still work with children, via school visits, one off events or educational projects. In the few countries where volunteers or interns will get into regular contact with children as part of their work, we have stricter requirements for who can join and their background. This is typically in the community or medical volunteering programmes, where children can be among the patients or linked to the conservation efforts.

All of our community and medical volunteering projects are geared towards community development and upliftment; in cross-cultural experiences that help both communities and individuals to grow.  Our focus is particularly on a foundation of health and sustainability as key elements for a thriving global community.  We also aim to bring attention to women’s empowerment and education, specifically on conservationism and the value of ecology.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Charlotte Gager

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Blog articles about our volunteer projects, the wider world and from volunteers in the field are shared here for everyone to get inspired and learn more about wildlife conservation topics, volunteering abroad and much more.