4-H: A positive youth development program

The 4-H foundation is built on the basis of positive youth development that meets guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

4-H is a very broad program – it focuses on a wide range of areas including photography, livestock, literacy, civic engagement, art and community service. It is a program that reaches people in the largest of cities and the smallest of towns. According to Michigan State University Extension, 4-H provides opportunities for people from all races, religions, national origins, genders, disabilities, sexual orientations and ages. Considering all this variety, 4-H does have one specific purpose, which is to create environments that build strong healthy youth who are engaged in a complex and changing world. In a nutshell, the purpose of 4-H programs nationwide is simply positive youth development.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) created the Positive Youth Development approach more than 30 years ago when researchers and practitioners identified what kept most young people on the right track. The approaches identified were:

  • A sense of competence: being able to do something well.
  • A sense of usefulness: having something to contribute.
  • A sense of belonging: being part of a community.
  • A sense of power: having control over one’s future.

4-H also provides positive youth development with projects and programs that are meaningful and fun, which attract young people. 4-H provides learning materials and educational opportunities in these and other areas that include adventure education, animal science, clothing and textiles, communication and expressive arts, food nutrition health and fitness, global and cultural education, natural resources and environmental education, personal development and leadership, plant and soil science, and science and technology. Through these areas youth have an opportunity to experience a sense of competence.

Through the focus area of citizenship, civic engagement, community service and service learning, 4-H members have an opportunity to experience a sense of usefulness. Through these program areas youth will have the opportunity to contribute to a broader community.

A sense of belonging, being part of a community is accomplished by being a member of 4-H. When members attend club meetings, they are reminded of their commitment by reciting the 4-H pledge. Being part of an organization that is not only local, but state, national and international promotes a connectedness to a larger community.

Two of Michigan’s 4-H Youth Developments Guiding Principles state that youth are actively engaged in their own development and youth are considered participants rather than recipients in their own learning process. As 4-H programs are developed and delivered, these guiding principles are the focus and thus offer 4-H members an opportunity to have a sense of power.

Positive youth development programming doesn’t happen with the efforts of just one person. It requires the involvement of many people, including parents, volunteers and staff. 4-H is invested in providing opportunities for youth to learn and grow while becoming contributing members of the community. In addition, youth are able to enhance their development with positive experiences and are equipped with the life skills they will need to function as adults.

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