Children’s programming is not glamorous (unless glitter and/or stage lights are involved) and it can be dirty, frustrating, and stressful. A career working with children is not likely to make you rich (sometimes you’re even expected to volunteer) and you basically live your work because their concerns become the reason you can’t sleep at night. But if you love children and you love seeing them grow, there is really nothing like being a part of their educational experience and development. Whether you are a teacher, coach, museum educator, children’s librarian, or scout leader, you are making a difference in children’s lives. You may never know the extent to which one empowering or care-filled statement will alter the course of their future or impact the people they come into contact with when they have a chance to do so. It’s the coolest thing in the world.
Because this blog is not a teaching blog, and not a homeschooling blog, I leave those two career areas out of this list. I assure you, they are near the top of the list for me, even though I haven’t spent years and years teaching like some of you have! This is a list of the Top 10 Children’s Programming Jobs for Fun and Fulfillment (according to me):
10. Camp Director
I have to put this one on here because I love it, but let’s face it—it gets the bottom of the list because it’s not the most fun thing I’ve ever done. It is hard, sometimes thankless work that often makes me feel like the Great and Powerful Oz: doing all my work from the camp office, turning away all except the most intrepid and working some strange magic that somehow makes everything function, while being available to dole out judgment and consequences when no one else knows what to do. I find it extremely important to go out and get to know the campers daily so that they don’t feel weird when I do come out from behind my curtain. Those moments with the kids are the best part of the day, whether I get to see their newest fairy house, sing a song with them, try their latest campfire meal, or just listen to a story about something that happened yesterday. However, I would say that the most fulfilling part of being a camp director is not necessarily working with the kids, because I don’t do much of it. It almost always comes from working with the staff—many of my day camp staff are 16 to 18 years old, and some have never had a job before. I get to be a part of their growth and development as professionals, and I get to be a part of their leadership journey as they learn how to manage logistics and behaviors that are far more complicated than they have ever dealt with before.
9. Visiting Performer/Program or Workshop Leader
Storytellers, puppeteers, authors, dancers, chefs, and many others will frequently book shows, programs, and workshops with libraries, schools, festivals, etc., because they pay relatively well and if you’re good, word spreads through the networking vines like fire on paper. Performing for kids is a lot of fun, and I’ve seen everything from a healthy foods gameshow to a science magic show to an author with a 7-foot cardboard giraffe puppet with moveable eyelids. In my experience running these programs, the fun meter is high because the visiting educator is new and exciting; anything they do is going to be novel. The reason I put performer so low on the list is that the “fulfillment” piece is low, due to the fact that each program happens in a different location, with different children, and there isn’t really a way to see your long-term impact on the kids you work with. If you get to do a workshop series with kids or (jackpot) you gain a fan following that attend all your programs in a 50-mile radius of their hometown, you are more likely to get this fulfillment out of your experience.
8. Tutor/Instructor in a subject or special skill
A tutor or instructor is there to back up the teachers, parents, and other adults in a kid’s cheering section. Tutoring could be helpful in a school subject, in behavior management, in a skill such as swimming or riding a bike, or in a creative art such as painting, drawing, drama, music, or dance. The impact a tutor can have on a child’s sense of self and well-being is enormous, which is why it is higher on the list than some others. I would say that the “fun” part of “fun and fulfillment” is not always present; if a child needs help in something, chances are they are frustrated and negative about their abilities. Sometimes, tutoring can take place for a child with unusually high abilities, but those students present their own challenges, as they tend to be more frustrated by failure than students who believe themselves unable to excel. Achieving goals as a tutor-student pair can be one of the most fulfilling experiences, simply because both of you are working so hard to reach them!
7. Museum Educator
Depending on the museum, this job could go higher or lower on the list. I have experience in an art museum, but I have met people who work in historic villages, science museums, and aquariums, and the “fun and fulfillment” meter shifts at each one. The job of a museum educator is akin to visiting performer, in that the kids usually come through in droves and you don’t get to develop much of a rapport with them before they’re off to the next museum or exhibit. Most museum exhibits used in children’s programs are really fun, though, which puts this higher than some of the others. I would say that short term fulfillment is what really made me love this job—watching kindergartners experience art, and then go back to the program table and explore their experience in a hands-on way was extraordinary. Children of all ages can find something to learn in any exhibit they visit, and the museum educator’s job is to help them express what it is that they are learning about themselves, about the subject of the exhibit, or about the world.
6. Youth Religious Leader
Depending on the religious institution, the curriculum used, and the time of day/week of the youth meetings, “fun and fulfillment” can change quite a bit. The youth leader’s whole job is to make a deeply spiritual and meaningful experience also accessible to people who may not be able to understand all the words or reasons behind their religion. The “fun” part may fluctuate, but the “fulfillment” rarely will, even if a youth leader finds themselves (as I have on a few occasions) helping a youth group that does not share the leader’s religion. It’s one position where finding meaning comes first and indoctrination is left to a much later step.
Being a camp counselor is SO. MUCH. FUN. Starting early in the morning, it’s non-stop games, songs, crafts, skill building, and mess making until bedtime (or bus time for day camp). Camp counseling falls in the middle of the list not because it isn’t fun or fulfilling, but because usually a counselor gets a week with one group of kids and that’s it. That week may change a child’s life. I had a kid name a goldfish after me once, and I hadn’t ever even been her counselor. I have no idea how I made that kind of impression, but I did. Yet, most of us do not get to see the same kids year after year, providing a truly fulfilling experience for both the campers and the counselors; I have no idea how many hamsters and puppies were also named after me. Unfortunately, the nature of camp counseling is to pull in high schoolers to the amazing world of camp and to say goodbye a few camp seasons later when they need to get better paying or year-round jobs.
4. After School Enrichment Teacher
I am going to say here that the after school enrichment teacher’s job is one of the hardest in this list. While camp counselors have to play teacher/sister/coach all day long (no easy task), the after school educator gets the kids when they have spent the whole day in a desk and are therefore high in energy and low in focus. Many of the children in after school programs come from difficult home lives, adding to behavioral challenges and their list of fulfillment needs. These educators might work for a non-profit, they might work under a grant in the school, they might simply run an after school daycare. Wherever they are, they are in a unique position to make a child’s long day end on a high note, as well as to get to know many children over the course of several years.
Coaches get to have fun by being a part of the next generation of athletes in a sport they love. It can be frustrating to watch a child not understand something or not perform as well as their coach knows they can, but more often than not, both the coach and the kids get an incredible amount of fulfillment from a season together. As with a few of the others, coaching is higher on the list because of its lasting impact—a coach gets to see a part of a kid that not many others get to see. They get to help a child develop confidence, persistence, and grit in collaboration with a team of other children.
2. Scout/Club Leader
Children’s club leadership, whether troop leader, 4-H mentor, or book club coordinator, is equivalent to coaching in many ways. I prefer it because I get to see so many sides to a kid. A game may show who is the fastest runner but then a dance party will show who has the best robot impression. A project may highlight the leaders in a group, while a service project unearths the most quietly competent. I have found little to be more fulfilling than to establish a connection with a group of kids and and to work with them weekly or monthly for years. Every meeting is fun, partly because anyone who’s present really wants to be there (I’ll address how to work with kids who don’t in a future post). Even planning for meetings is fun, and that’s not always the case in other pursuits! The good and bad side of this one is that it is nearly always going to be volunteer.
My biggest reason for placing this job higher than the rest is that a children’s librarian gets to watch the children in town grow up while having the opportunity to be a very influential and important adult in their lives. The fulfillment that comes from watching a child go from diapered toddler at storytime to voracious reader of The Magic Treehouse to thoroughly well-read teen is incredible, and having a hand in their development is delightful. Children’s librarians get to engage one-on-one with children who run the gamut from shy to boisterous, learn what each child that enters the library might like to read next, develop programming that will encourage the storytime crowd to keep coming to the library for fun by Middle School (Giant Candyland, anyone? How about a Pokémon tournament?), and help every child find their place in the world of readers (and arguably, the world). It is highest on my list simply because it is a combination of coach, tutor, camp counselor, museum educator, and scout leader, and requires all of those skills (or the ability to find people with all of those skills and use them to best advantage) in order to be good at it.
What would be your top choice? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please feel free to post questions to help you get the most out of your own programming profession.