Throughout January 2020, Helen Connolly, SA’s Commissioner for Children and Young People visited South Australian Early Learning Centres to ask children what they thought was meant by the term ‘helping’. The backdrop to these conversations was the catastrophic ‘Black Summer’ bushfires where images of firefighters and volunteers had been dominating news feeds day and night.

Prior to the consultations, various organisations had been speaking with the Commissioner about the declining numbers of young people volunteering, and how this meant organisations who relied upon volunteers, such as the CFS and SES, were facing declining numbers overall. Their aging volunteer force was not able to pass their experience and expertise onto younger volunteers, who would ordinarily be joining the ranks during their teenage years. They were interested to understand why this was happening and what could be done to motivate more young people to volunteer.

These conversations prompted Commissioner Connolly to embark on a project to explore how young people view volunteering. This revealed that young people view volunteering as ‘helping’. The Commissioner was then interested to compare this view with that of younger children, asking them what they understood by the term ‘helping’. The aim being to try and establish at what point views held by children and young people diverge.

The Commissioner visited three Early Learning Centres across metropolitan Adelaide over a three-week period in January 2020, where she met with more than 150 children between the ages of 2 and 6 years. The children were each given a picture-based activity in which they were asked to describe what they thought was depicted in the images presented. Images that children this age had likely seen before, and which they could therefore conceptualise, were used. The images consisted of images of police officers, firefighters, teachers, doctors, coaches, and other ‘helping’ professionals including a number of superheroes.

From these sessions it was clear children in this age group had a strong understanding of the concept of what a ‘helping’ professional is. Children from different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds could easily identify nurses, police, and firefighters, with images of ‘superheroes’ producing the strongest recognition of a ‘helping professional’ amongst this age group. Similarly, the image of an astronaut was one children of this age recognised almost instantly.

The overall findings showed that children in this age group both know about and like the ‘helping’ professions. This indicated that a disinterest or disconnect between ‘helping’ and ‘volunteering’ may arrive later in childhood or happen in adolescence.

The Commissioner intends to explore the why, when and how of this change to further devise strategies around how motivation for volunteering can be fostered in children as they develop.

There were four key findings from the Early Learning Centre sessions that provided interesting insights into the question of what children between the ages of 2 and 6 understand by the term ‘helping’. In two out of three early learning centres, most children could identify ‘helpers’ as police, firefighters, teachers, doctors, nurses. Most could not identify a picture of a teacher helping a student in school, suggesting that young children have difficulty with the concept of school. None of the children at any of the early learning centres could identify Scott Morrison as ‘Prime Minister’ though many could recognise he was an important person.

There were minor differences in children’s identification of ‘workers’ based on social economic areas A man in a suit was usually recognised as an office worker and a man in high visibility gear as a site worker. A further finding suggested gender roles are ingrained throughout early childhood both in the home and within early learning environments. Responses from children referenced their mum or dad in terms of their place or role aligning with common stereotypes. Some of the centre set-ups were also relatively gendered in their arrangement of indoor and outdoor equipment, as well as the associated activities and props made available.