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Youth Development & 4-H

4-H Youth Development

4-H is NIFA's flagship youth development program. It is a nonformal youth education program open to all interested youth. Youth participants are between the ages of 5 and 19 and reside in every demographic area—rural, urban, and suburban. 4-H helps youth acquire knowledge, develop life skills, and form attitudes that will enable them to become self-directing, productive, contributing citizens.

National 4-H enrollment statistics from recent years are available online on the National 4-H Headquarters Web site.

Research has shown that participation in a 4-H club makes a difference in a young person's life. Research on the benefits of 4-H in children's lives has included:

New York 4-H Club Study

This 2-year study focused on understanding the difference that 4-H club participation makes in a young person's life and the ways in which 4-H clubs influence and contribute to positive youth development in New York state [1]. The results show that the process of youth development is positively influenced in many ways by 4-H club membership. Young people who participate in 4-H clubs do better in school; are more motivated to help others; develop skills in leadership, public speaking, self-esteem, communication and planning; and make lasting friendships.

The researchers also examined the effect of the length of time a youth remains in 4-H. Statistics indicate significant differences between youth who remain in 4-H for 1 year and those who remain for more than that, in the following assets and/or skills:

  • Leadership.
  • Conflict resolution.
  • Communication.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Ability to make healthy choices.
  • Knowledge of nutrition and food safety.
  • Record keeping.

Responses to the open-ended question at the end of the “Members Only” Survey (for example, “What do you feel you have gained from being a 4-H club member?”) provided a wealth of rich data upon which to draw conclusions about the difference 4-H club membership makes in a young person's life:

  • Most club members felt they had gained skills that would support them throughout their lives. Many reported multiple gains in terms of public speaking, problem solving, goal setting, leadership skills, planning skills, self-confidence, citizenship, communication skills, academic gains, expanded horizons, organizational skills, respect for (and from) others, patience, tolerance, and “real-world” experience from hands-on projects.
  • Most youth reported they had developed skills in leadership, public speaking, self-esteem, communication, and planning.
  • Many youth reported that 4-H club membership had improved their school performances, their ability to make lasting friendships, and their desire to make a difference in their communities.
  • Most adults who participated in the study believed the success of 4-H club members is closely related to active participation and involvement in public demonstrations, community service projects, and county and state fairs. Others believed the relationships developed in 4-H clubs and long-term membership were the keys to positive outcomes for youth.

Studies of Children Involved in 4-H

A study of more than 760 4-H'ers in Pennsylvania indicated that youth who had county leadership experiences rated high on life skills, and even higher when they had more leadership experiences beyond the county level. [2]

A study of 400 youth involved in swine projects in Iowa showed that 4-H youth perceived that project participation had positive effects on the development of their life skills. [3]

A study of more than 50 4-H animal science project alumni in New Jersey reported that their 4-H experiences influenced the development of their life skills, particularly accepting responsibility. [4]

4-H Club Leaders Study

In a survey of 566 4-H club leaders in Wisconsin , researchers found that adult 4-H club leaders perceived significant benefits of 4-H involvement, both for children and their communities.

  • Benefits to youth: psychological, social, and intellectual development— “Learning about caring, sharing, responsibility for our land, community and the people we live with helps youth become responsible adults.”
  • Benefits to the community:  Economic, youth become viewed as assets, civic— Youth service accomplishes activities that the community would (otherwise) have to use tax dollars for.” [5]

Studies that Compare 4-H Youth with Non-4-H Youth

The strongest test of the role of 4-H in the lives of youth is to compare 4-H'ers to children who are not members of 4-H. Studies have shown:

  • Youth who have participated in 4-H for more than a year are significantly better off than youth who did not participate in the program (study of 2,500 youth in Montana). [8]
  • Participation in 4-H has a positive influence on children's perceptions of their competence, coping, and life skills (study of 666 Ohio public schoolchildren). [6]
  • 4-H'ers rate themselves higher than non-4-H peers on working with groups, understanding self, communicating, making decisions, and leadership (study of more than 300 4-H club members and more than 500 non-4-H schoolchildren in Texas). [7]
  • For 4-H'ers, more involvement is associated with higher scores on communication, working with groups, and leadership. [7]

Sources of Research Studies:

[1] Mead, June, Hirschl, Thomas, Rodriguez, Eunice, and Goggin, Steve. 1999. Understanding the Difference 4-H Clubs Make in the Lives of New York Youth: How 4-H Contributes to Positive Youth Development.

[2] Cantrell, Joy, Anne L. Heinsohn, and Melanie K. Doebler. 1989. “Is it Worth it? Going Beyond the Local 4-H Club.” Journal of Extension. 27(1).

[3] Gamon, Julia, and Pedro Dehegedus-Hetzel. 1994. “Swine Project Skill Development.” Journal of Extension. 32(1)

[4] Ward, Carol Knowlton. 1996. “Life Skill Development Related to Participation in 4-H Animal Science Projects.” Journal of Extension. 34(2)

[5] Source: Taylor-Powell, Ellen, Greg Hutchins , and Robyn Reed. 1997. Community Service: What 4-H Youth Groups Do to Make a Difference. University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.

[6] Miller, Jeffrey P. and Blannie E. Bowen. 1993. “Competency, Coping, and Contributory Life Skills Development of Early Adolescents.” Journal of Agricultural Education. Spring: 68-76.

[7] Boyd, Barry L., Don R. Herring, and Gary E. Briers. 1992. “Developing Life Skills in Youth: How 4-H'ers Perceive their Leadership.” Journal of Extension. Winter: 16-18.

[8] Astroth, Kirk , and Haynes, George. 2002. “More than cows and cooking: Newest research shows the impact of 4-H.” Journal of Extension. Vol. 40, #4, August 2002.


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