When I was a kid, the only understanding I had of 4-H was that it was a group made up of the girls I knew who loved horses. I knew it had something to do with farming or animals and the fair, and that was basically it.
So when we moved to our new town a few years ago and saw what our girls’ friends who were involved in 4-H were doing, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it’s much more than that. The four “H”s in 4-H stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health, and the projects kids can get involved in range across all four of those aspects of life.
Our 4-H club has offered photography, cooking, baking, sewing, working on small engines, and more. Kids can enter artwork, crafts, photography, LEGO creations, and other visual art projects in the fair in the 4-H barn. Our girls designed outfits for a fashion review — another 4-H fair project — one year.
There is the animal end of things, of course too. My kids’ friends have learned all about caring for rabbits, guinea pigs, chickens, sheep, and other animals. I’m kind of floored by how much they have to learn to be able to show their animals at the fair. They are essentially fountains of knowledge, with judges firing questions at the kids about care, breeds, and the like. The depth and breadth of what they study is impressive. I had no idea there was that much to know about chicken breeds.
But 4-H is much more than a farm club and has in recent years altered its approach to better meet the broad needs of teens in their program. For example, NPR recently ran a story about a 4-H educator in Prince George’s County, Maryland, who runs a program for teens about developing healthy relationships. The group talks about loyalty, trust, communication, and how to build — and even end — relationships.
President and CEO of the National 4-H Council Jennifer Sirangelo says that the goal of the health program — which includes nutrition, physical activity, and emotional well-being — is to help build kids’ confidence and give them the courage to navigate challenges they face in their lives. In November, 4-H will introduce the relationship program to LGBTQ freshman at the University of Maryland, focusing on issues LBGTQ people face.
4-H is clearly evolving. And it really has something for everyone.
Two of my kids have had zero interest in showing animals, but they’ve still enjoyed showing arts and crafts in the fair as 4-H members, as well as participating in various service projects the group organizes throughout the year.
In our small town 4-H group, I’ve been touched by the sincere dedication and commitment to service in the adult, as well as the teen, leadership. As the kids sat in small groups one day, discussing potential topics for their demonstrations (public speaking is another focus I’d never known about before), our 4-H leader told the kids to listen well to one another and to “encourage one another’s gifts.” I seriously almost teared up. What a lovely, inspiring way to talk to children.
I’m sure 4-H groups vary a lot around the country, and like any organization there are probably amazing chapters and not so great ones. But the intent and focus of the organization itself is noble and the activities it offers vary widely — far beyond the chickens and horses I remember from my youth.