Confession: I'm a ten-year, fourth-generation 4-H alum. This post is totally biased, because after a decade of club meetings, project preparations, and fair weeks, I'm so grateful for my parents' decision to get me started in 4-H and encourage me to continue.

If you're not familiar with 4-H, the program embraces a vast range of activities and impact, from one child's scrapbooking project to the National 4-H Conference. The national website explains, "4‑H programs are grounded in the belief that kids learn best by doing. Kids complete hands-on projects in areas like science, health, agriculture and citizenship, in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles. Kids can concentrate on one focus area or they can try a variety of programs throughout their 4‑H experience. Regardless of the project area, all 4‑H programs include mentoring and career readiness as core elements."

Every kid's 4-H experience is different. I have friends and relatives who crafted quilts, were active Junior Leaders, competed in public speaking, showed horses, goats, cows, cats, or dogs, or won grand champion with flowers or cake decorating. Although I came from a line of farmers, I'm a city girl and stuck to the indoor activities that reflected my interests, like foods, scrapbooking, and arts and crafts. At one time or another I held every office in our home-school 4-H club, and spent one weekend each high school summer practicing like crazy at the Indiana State 4-H Band.

The impact of 4-H on my life went well beyond any single competition or club meeting. As the 4-H pledge declares, I learned how to give "my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world."

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Why do I think you ought to sign up your kids for 4-H next year, instead of Girl Scouts, summer camp, or the YMCA? Here's a few specific reasons among many:

4-H gives summer a focus

I'm told it can be difficult to keep kids entertained for the entire summer. For me, as soon as school was over, summer meant working on 4-H projects. Foods, for instance, took several weeks - each grade level baked a different item, which took practice, repetition, and testing recipes over and over until the muffins or pretzels came out nicely risen and uniformly browned. All the prep work led up to fair week and judging. Then, it was time to rest on my laurels and enjoy the last few weeks of freedom until school started.

4-H offers leadership opportunities

Whether a 4-H kid is presenting a demonstration of his or her project for the club, serving as club secretary, or joining the Junior Leaders to help with judging and perform community service, he or she learns leadership in values and practice. Towards the end of my 4-H career, I became mentor to most of our homeschool club, the 4-Star 4-H'ers, as I was the oldest and most experienced. I learned not only how to lead a meeting with Robert's Rules of Order, but how to lead people, and how to handle being looked up to for answers and advice.  Those lessons have served me well in college and my adult life.

4-H teaches responsibility

The core of 4-H is the idea of responsibility for oneself and one's projects. No one else could do my 4th grade weather poster for me; but likewise, I could do that weather poster, and I did, and the ribbon I got for it reflected my work and no one else's. That poster got a red second-place ribbon, but the postcard collection I poured my heart and soul into designing the display for? That one got me the grand champion rosette, and I knew I had done my absolute best.

4-H allows each child to pursue his or her skills & passions

4-H encompasses a number of projects - 69 in my home county at last count - and every kid can find a new interest or be able to pursue a current one. Over the course of my ten years, I tried out probably fifteen or twenty different projects, before honing in on a half-dozen I particularly enjoyed. My dad said it better than I could: "4-H allows you first to read the rules and create the project. If there is open judging, it allows the exhibitor to hear someone else (other than a parent) tell you the pros/cons of your work. The remarks by the judge provide valuable feedback to your work. Once you get the project right, then you work on the bit of competition to make your project stand out among the others. This will teach you to stretch and reach a bit further than you might feel comfortable doing."

4-H judging = interviewing experience

4-H allows for two different kinds of judging, "open" and "closed," so-called as to whether the exhibitor is present when judging happens. Open judging provides a marvelous opportunity for future interviewing experience! While talking to the adult who holds the fate of one's project in his hands is daunting, it's also a chance to present oneself and one's project in a professional manner. Eventually I figured out that standing up, shaking hands, and looking the judge in the eye lessened my own nervousness; and I learned how to answer questions clearly, succinctly, and positively. Those skills I developed in 4-H judging became the basis for my future job interviews.

4-H gives a sense of accomplishment and pride in a job well done

A little healthy competition is surprisingly empowering. In a world of participation awards, 4-H keeps every participant to a high standard. Each exhibited project at the township, county, or state fair gets judged and awarded a particular ribbon. But the exhilarating part of exhibiting at fair, no matter what ribbon is awarded, is the sense of accomplishment when you survey your finished work and know, for a certainty, that you have done the best job you can. When I informally polled my fellow 4-H alums on Facebook, they remembered feeling "pride and satisfaction", "accomplishing something important, something that was a part of something bigger," experiencing a "growth of confidence...overcoming last minute mistakes," "the rush that comes from knowing you did a good job, and while no one else may know it, you know it and that is all you need."

4-H emphasizes parental involvement and support

4-H isn't only about the kids, but is also an opportunity for parents to actively support, encourage, and teach their children. For my mom and dad, sometimes that meant searching the neighborhood for a soldering iron (for my one attempt at the electric project), and sometimes it meant buying 15 pounds of powdered sugar for royal icing at the beginning of the summer (my sister was a prize-winning cake decorator.) My parents stuck with it, and showed that they had confidence that we would do the best job we could. They drove us to club meetings, helped us prepare our projects, advised us on what to do better, encouraged us in our nervousness, congratulated us when we succeeded, and challenged us to move forward when we made mistakes.

If you're not yet convinced. I'll add a few comments from the friends I polled on Facebook. The parents of 4-H'ers enjoyed watching their children develop new, satisfying skills, learning problem solving, leadership, and how to run a meeting. A mom friend also pointed out that it is a great alternative to Girl Scouts. My dad, while telling me stories of his 11 years of 4-H, finished up by saying this: "Why do I think my children should and did join 4-H? It teaches character."

There's more that I could add, and stories I wish I could tell; but at the least, I encourage you to click over to the 4-H website and look at your state and county extension. See what's available in your area - 4-H is present in every county in the U.S.! Maybe take an afternoon to wander around your county fair this summer. 4-H may not be the be-all and end-all of children's development, but I firmly believe that not only is it versatile enough to suit every child, it is a priceless experience which I hope every kid gets the opportunity to explore.

If you have questions about 4-H, or your own stories to tell, leave a comment below!

Copyright 2016 Rebecca Willen