Helping youth reframe livestock competition

How asking a different set of questions can change a competitive experience from being about the project or showcase to being about the process and the life skills learned.

When you ask someone who isn’t involved in 4-H if they’ve heard of the program, the response is often skewed towards activities revolving around agriculture and livestock. In thinking long and hard about why this might be, two things come to mind.

The first is the historic background of 4-H. In the late 1800s, agricultural researchers found that farmers were not entirely open to trying the new approaches discovered through university work. Young people, on the other hand, were open to trying new ideas and shared their experiences with adults in their community. This history highlights the idea that 4-H’s roots are in agriculture, and that we’ve long acknowledged the great potential of youth to shape our communities.

The second thing that might reinforce the stereotype of 4-H being only for agriculture and livestock is those projects are the ones often talked about first by youth participants in the program. Logically, this makes sense. A young person may be involved in a lot of static project areas like photography, rocketry, food and nutrition, but if they’re also involved in a livestock project, that project is the one that likely takes the largest investment of time, resources and energy. While youth may take photos for their photography project throughout the year, their beef steer requires attention and work every day, multiple times a day.

The founding history of 4-H isn’t going to change, so how can we help youth reframe the role of their livestock project? As leaders, parents and community members, we are in a position to help young people shift their view of 4-H livestock projects from competition to life lesson with just a few simple questions.

During the time before arriving at a showcase, such as a county fair, state livestock expo, open class or show, we can help change from the livestock project to the processes involved in making that project being the sole focus. Under the structure before the shift, youth often think of their learning experience as specific to their livestock species. Contrarily, when we help youth think about the processes involved in raising their animal, they can better articulate the life lessons learned through their project. Examples include fiscal responsibility, ethical animal husbandry and time management. Using an animal project record book is one tool that can help facilitate this shift in learning, but is most successful when reinforced by the questions we ask as adult mentors.

One common question that is asked after the conclusion of such a showcase is, “Did you have fun?” There are two characteristics of this question that could be improved upon. One being that its answer requires only a simple “yes” or “no” and thus prompts little critical thought. The other is that it implies the most important thing a participant should get out of a competitive showcase is fun. While enjoyment in your activities is crucial, use this post-showcase time as an additional learning opportunity. Reframe your question to state something like, “What did you learn during this experience?” or “What new connections or friendships did you make?” These questions require youth participants to think harder about the bigger picture of their livestock projects and help shift from competition to learning and networking experiences.

The Michigan State University Extension offices work hard to develop meaningful opportunities for the youth in your counties. The goal of our work connects back to the broader goals of 4-H: opening the door for young people to learn leadership skills and have hands-on experiences that utilize said skills to better their communities. For more information on such opportunities in your area, check out the Michigan 4-H events calendar today.

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