4-H adapts to find new ways of 'learning by doing'

The 4-H motto “to make the best better” is not lost on participants of all ages during this uncertain time.

On March 4, the organization held its annual kick-off event at the Clark County Fairgrounds. A crowd of about 800 people – 4-Hers and their families – attended to play games, make crafts, eat snacks, learn and have fun together to celebrate the start of a new year of 4-H programming.

But on March 18, all programming was moved to a virtual environment.

“Since then, we’ve been working with volunteers and kids in cyber world,” says Patty House, Clark County’s 4-H Director. “We’re trying to have kids come to cyber space, engage in learning and take things from cyber space to go out in the real world and apply those lessons.”

House says it has been interesting to see how clubs and volunteers have worked to transition and try new things since meeting face-to-face isn’t currently an option.

Club and committee meetings have taken to Zoom, which House says seemed off-putting to some people at first but has taken-off as a vital tool.

“I think people are craving personal connection right now. I think they have adapted and will be more willing to use virtual platforms in the future,” she says. “It may enable us to reach some more people that we wouldn’t have been able to reach before.”

Dody Haughey, advisor of the Ohio Livestock Boosters club, agrees. While she enjoys the traditional way of meeting with her club members, she says the virtual setting has provided at least one club member who has autism an avenue to feel more comfortable speaking up and participating more often than ever before.

To help bolster online learning, Haughey says that during meetings, her club spends time reviewing best practices for caring for animals, and between meetings she shares educational videos and tips she’s learned from online seminars. She says clubs have been sharing resources with other clubs to help kids do well on their projects and prepare for judging – whatever that might look like this year.

House says while details about how skillathon and face-to-face project judging are still up in the air because of social distancing and small gathering restrictions and recommendations, 4-H officials have been looking into what other judging options could include.

Whether by video, teleconference or in person, Haughey emphasizes the importance of judging overall. She says through that kind of interview process, 4-Hers gain skills they can use for a lifetime by learning how to prepare themselves and present themselves with confidence.

Those are just some of the skills gained by 4-Hers like Hannah Weymouth, who joined 4-H as soon as she was eligible in third grade and is currently in her final year.

But it’s not the way she thought she’d be wrapping up her 4-H career.

A Northwestern High School graduate and a current student at Wittenberg University, Weymouth shows cattle and takes sewing projects. One of her favorite things about 4-H through the years, however, has been attending camp each summer – as a camper and eventually as a counselor.

“Camp is such a big thing in 4-H. No matter how old you are, it’s always something everyone looks forward to,” she says. But with this year’s camp cancelled, Weymouth and other counselors wanted to find another way to keep “campers” engaged.

Since April, any youth – even those not registered in 4-H – have been able to join in weekly Cyber Challenges created by 4-H camp counselors, including tie dying, mask making, photography and fishing. The challenges encourage participants to keep “learning-by-doing” and “making the best better” even while they’re at home.

“With the Cyber Challenges, we’re trying to find a way for kids to still look forward to an ‘event’,” Weymouth says. “It’s super simple, but it gets kids to participate in 4-H and still follow the restrictions from COVID-19.”

Weymouth hopes she can set a positive example for other 4-Hers to persevere.

“By participating in these things, I’m still showing that I care about 4-H, and I’m not giving up,” she says.

Kids need something to stay focused on and put their energy into, House explains, adding that between animal projects, sewing, cooking, bottle rocket building, and others, 4-H has more than 200 project options to choose from.

For 2020, fees to join 4-H have been waived to remove an additional hardship on families, and House says registration for miscellaneous projects has remained open past the regular deadline to allow families to jump onboard if they need another outlet to keep kids engaged.

“It’s the journey – not the end – that matters in 4-H,” she says. “Now more than ever, kids probably really need those projects to focus on because they won’t have other things to focus on that they might have otherwise had.”

Unlike miscellaneous projects, animal projects kept their registration deadline, and House says choosing whether or not to sign up for an animal project became a tough choice for some families this year.

Taking an animal to the fair is fun, but it’s also a monetary investment by each family, and some weren’t sure they were willing to take the leap this year with all the uncertainty about whether or not the fair will go on as scheduled.

“Some families might have chosen not to purchase animals this year, and some chose to purchase fewer,” House says. “We’ve encouraged people to look at their own family finances and needs and do what would work best for them.

“Families needed to invest based on what they could afford for the experience versus what they could gain for the sale of an animal come fair time.”

Once animals are shown at the fair, they are sold at auction – oftentimes purchased by a combination of local businesses and families. With many businesses deemed non-essential for weeks and many employees out of work, some families were worried the sale of their animals wouldn’t be enough this year to make the investment worth the cost of raising the animals.

“We know nobody has been untouched by COVID-19,” House says. “It is unlikely that businesses will have the same discretionary income they have had in the past to benefit many organizations.

“But, I still think there will be businesses and individuals that support the kids’ projects by buying animals at auction. Will it be at the same level they have in the past? I think it will depend on how hard they were hit during the pandemic.”

House emphasizes that if purchase prices are down this year, she fully believes it is not because people or businesses lack interest in supporting 4-H families but that they just might not have the means to do so this year.

“There are positives that can come out of this even though it’s hard right now. Overcoming challenges makes us stronger,” House says. “We have lived in a society for a long time that says ‘Everyone is a winner,’ and I think everyone can come out of this a winner, if we choose to find the positives from it.”

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Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.