County fair: A greater opportunity for engaging youth in leadership

Ideas to provide opportunities for all 4-H youth to build leadership skills and contribute to the fair community.

Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development provides year-round programming for its youth participants. Youth participate in activities on a regular basis at a local and county level, such as club meetings and service learning projects. Then there are statewide learning opportunities, such as Exploration Days where 4-Hers come to Michigan State University to take sessions and explore campus, or Capitol Experience where high schoolers come to Lansing, Michigan, to develop active citizenry skills at a four-day mock legislative program. While Michigan 4-H offers a plethora of experiences yearlong, when you talk to 4-Hers they often site their local county fair as a highlight of their time in the program. For some youth, the fair is the culmination of their 4-H year, so how do we engage those youth in the development of leadership skills?

For starters, actively engage youth in the planning of the fair and fair activities. Open up additional seats on fair boards and create junior livestock boards, where youth get to have an equal voice, equal participation and equal responsibility as adults. This way, youth are active participants in the process rather than just recipients. Adults and youth can learn a lot from each other, and as in any project or challenge, more perspectives at the table are better than just one. Youth on boards should also be in charge of writing thank-you notes to all necessary people (volunteers, judges, etc.) at the end of fair – an activity that practices humility, relationship building and communication skills.

Another opportunity is to have teen leaders for project areas at the fair. This isn’t limited to livestock projects. Have youth volunteer or apply to be a teen leader for static projects and then engage that youth in more than just helping check in projects on judging day. Give youth meaningful roles. Ask teen leaders to alternate shifts at their project barn during the fair, so they’re available to answer questions from fair patrons. Another good role is to have teen leaders make an educational display about the general process for working in that project area. Many people who aren’t involved in 4-H, either as youth, parent or volunteer, don’t know anything about the program. 4-Hers are the best ambassadors for the program, we just have to give them the skills and opportunity to tell people about it. This enhances their critical thinking and public speaking skills.

Have all 4-Hers participate in at least one “duty” throughout the week. All 4-Hers utilize the fairgrounds and all 4-Hers should be engaged in their 4-H community. Activities could include taking tickets at the fair gates, helping park cars, watering flowers, working in the kitchen, being emcees at bandshell events, picking up litter or even giving tours of 4-H barns. When youth are engaged in their community space, they’re more likely to feel a sense of pride in that community as well as a sense of commitment to keeping that community a safe and positive environment.

There are countless opportunities for youth to develop their leadership skills in 4-H. Please encourage youth in your community to push their boundaries and continue learning by participating in activities other than the fair. All the while, creating intentional opportunities at the fair for youth who do not have the interest or means to do so. At every level of the 4-H program, from state, to county, to club, we should be creating spaces for 4-Hers to grow and expecting them to make their best better.

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