Essential elements of 4-H: Belonging

Creating a sense of belonging for all participants is a powerful foundation for learning.

Chalkboard drawing of people holding hands

There are many different ways to describe how 4-H youth programs work to enhance positive youth development. One way is to think about the essential elements of a 4-H experience, developed by National 4-H Headquarters. The components of mastery, belonging, generosity and independence all interact to provide a positive learning environment for youth. Michigan State University Extension recommends considering how each element can be fostered and improved in various 4-H settings.

Belonging is a very powerful concept for youth. When adult facilitators create a space where youth feel physically and emotionally safe in a group, they can then form positive relationships with peers and adult role models. Feeling connected to others will affect their mental health as well as their academic skills. These relationships can be the foundation for healthy decision-making, learning life skills and navigating how to manage risks.

While belonging is important for all youth, it may take some intentionality to create a sense of belonging for youth who come from particular populations. For example, youth who look different from the majority of kids in your club currently; youth who come from a family who have never been involved with 4-H; youth who have experienced significant trauma or who have special needs. Take some time to think through the challenges faced by these participants and help current 4-H members and volunteers recognize these challenges, too.

How can we enhance a sense of belonging for youth? Here are some ideas.

  • Being “open to all” is more than just a tagline in this line of work, it can really be a lifeline for marginalized populations. Consider facilitating discussions amongst youth about what it means to be a member, how it might feel to be an outsider and how the group can become intentionally more inclusive and welcoming. A hands-on activity that is helpful to jump-start this conversation is the Barnga game.
  • Creating a space that is safe physically may seem easier than understanding how to create one that is emotionally safe. Be aware of what microaggressions are so you can call them out and redirect. There is a difference between intent and impact, and helping youth understand the effect their words can have can help them as they start venturing out into spaces where they are meeting lots of new people.
  • Use discussion questions that encourage youth to learn from each other. Encourage a culture of curiosity and life-long learning.
  • Icebreakers and team building activities are really important to help everyone feel comfortable interacting with others in the group and building relationships. These are helpful when a group is just getting started, as well as continuing to build trust in the group on an ongoing basis. Being intentional about including these types of activities will help any group feel more cohesive, as well as helping new members feel comfortable. Adjust the difficulty of the activity to suit your group; keep it simple for cloverbuds or add challenges for groups that have been together for a while.
  • Creating a shared set of ground rules can help everyone feel comfortable, knowing the expectations of the group as well as having a voice in creating the space.
  • Those who are already a part of the group will feel more comfortable than newcomers. Help members understand how they play a role in creating a sense of welcome and belonging for new members or visitors.

4-H can provide a space for belonging that also creates space for learning life skills. Adult facilitators are key to creating that space, and helping other members and volunteers see their own roles in increasing a sense of belonging for everyone.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2017 Impact Report: “MSU Extension: Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.


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