It’s that time of year again to sign up and pitch in. Get ready to build playgrounds, chaperone field trips, plan fund-raisers and assist in classrooms. But while most parents know the value of helping, many struggle with demanding schedules. Here are creative ways to serve wisely and find a sense of purpose and belonging:

 1. Be Realistic with Your Schedule

A lackluster economy has left fewer mothers with extra time, although work isn’t the only reason for less involvement. Parents may be volunteering for other athletic programs, youth groups or religious organizations. Some may have young children to care for at home.

Despite these issues, parents are finding ways to help without feeling like they’ve over-booked their time. Many can volunteer for as little as a few hours per year just by helping at the book fair or co-planning the teacher appreciation luncheon. Some parents do projects from home like fund raising or grant writing.

2. Support the School

In other cases, parents could help by collecting and donating materials to the classroom. Teachers always need boxes of tissues for their students to use or for parents to save box tops for the school fund-raising program Box Tops for Education, says Beverly Hugo, school committee chair of the Framingham School Committee.

3. Volunteer Your Talents

A more recent example, says Hugo, was when a parent who works at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge organized a class field trip to the school campus. The same parent is planning another class trip to MIT’s Media Lab. Another parent put together a handy 30-minute DVD on ocean pollution for the students.

4. Calling All Dads

The good news, too, is that more fathers are helping as volunteers. At this year’s ice cream social at the Fred W. Miller Elementary School in Holliston, fathers were asked to scoop ice cream. “A ton of dads showed up for half-hour shifts,” says David Keim, the school principal. In Lexington, a “Dad and Doughnuts” program encourages father/child breakfasts at school and fathers also enjoy participating in “Math Nights,” where they can help fifth graders with math challenges. “It’s always good to have a balance between moms and dads,” says Keim. “Both girls and boys need solid male role models.”

5. Building a Strong Foundation

For parents who feel they can’t volunteer at all, Hugo notes that their service work is what they are already doing: keeping their child healthy, rested and ready to learn, ensuring that homework is done and being an advocate for the child.

In the end, parents who pursue ways to volunteer at school will find something they can contribute, and they will see direct benefits for their child, Keim believes. “When a child sees a parent in a school situation, hopefully, [that idea of service] becomes ingrained in a child. And volunteering and community service are parts of what make us really good human beings.”

Elizabeth Ross White is a freelance writer from Ipswich.