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Readers pose solutions to reenergize 4-H program

Tom J. Bechman people at a county fair
FUN TIMES AT THE FAIR: People enjoy county fairs, and 4-H has always been a big part of most fairs. The number of 4-H projects exhibited at many fairs has been slipping for the past several years.
Hoosiers care deeply about the future of 4-H in Indiana. Keep reading to learn some ideas for keeping 4-H alive.

Don Cummings, Seymour, Ind., didn’t need our editorial about a dim future for 4-H if trends continue to know that things need to change if 4-H is going to survive long term. He simply walked through the buildings where 4-H projects are displayed at his county fair.

“I remember when there were projects everywhere, and this year, there were open spaces,” Cummings says. “It was obvious to me that the number of 4-H projects exhibited at our county fair was down, especially compared to several years ago.”

Cummings lives in Jackson County, traditionally home of one of the largest, best-attended and most-respected county fairs in Indiana. Cummings, the son of the late Jim Cummings, a longtime ag teacher and 4-H leader, began tagging along with his dad to 4-H meetings before he was old enough to be in 4-H. He has loved 4-H ever since.

“Seeing the decrease in projects was sad for me,” Cummings says. “Kids are missing out on great opportunities to learn. I still remember being excited because I could take [the] wildlife [project] and color pictures of birds, and then do something even more exciting the next year when I took it again.”

Many kids today aren’t catching that excitement. And it’s not because 4-H Extension educators aren’t trying. Jackson County, for example, has an excellent Extension staff and dedicated local ag teachers who work with both FFA and 4-H kids.

Offer solutions

Times have changed. Kids have changed. But Cummings isn’t ready to throw in the towel. “My wife, Barbara, and I believe repackaging these projects could get kids interested again,” Cummings says.

“For example, instead of ‘forestry,’ a vague term for a third or fourth grader, why not call the project ‘trees.’ After all, that’s what it is about. Kids still relate to simple terms. If they know what something is, they may be more likely to enroll.”

Cummings believes lots of kids would be interested in the weather project if manuals and lessons were updated. “Weather is more erratic today, and even kids know it,” he says. “Why not make the first year of the project include learning about tornadoes, then maybe the second year is learning about hurricanes? These projects and project materials need to speak more clearly to kids.”

To be fair, some projects have been upgraded and manuals redone. Redoing entire projects is a time-consuming, expensive task. Yet from some anecdotal reports, after the foods project was reworked at the state level recently, enrollment in foods in some counties declined. Why? Word among some leaders is that the new curriculum focused on making healthy foods, and some 4-H’ers still want to bake cookies and pies like their parents did.

Cummings believes that with imagination and creativity, projects can be retooled to attract kids. Some of the STEM learning concepts displayed at the 2021 Indiana State Fair, which involved using 3-D printers and small robots to teach 21st century skills, could also attract kids. Supplying these types of materials statewide would be expensive.

Cummings isn’t out of ideas. “Indiana 4-H needs a spokesperson, someone that everyone, especially kids, would recognize and look up to,” he says. “Maybe it’s a country music star, a pro athlete or a former Miss America. Someone who was in 4-H or believes in 4-H that has a platform could get kids excited again.”

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