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4-H program teaches skills for today's world
By Renu Sehgal - June 20, 1997

When the 4-H program began in 1914, children learned how to better manage crops, use hybrid seeds on the farm and participated in canning clubs. Eighty-three years later, the program helps urban children learn to speak in public and write resumes.

"Times have changed. We need to keep changing how we deliver comprehensive informal education and how we link with communities," said Carole L. Eller, extension educator for youth and resource development.

4-H is a national program that has reinvented itself to suit children's needs. Its goal is to develop competent, coping, caring and contributing adults by teaching skills that children need to survive in today's world.

"In the beginning, the focus of the program was rural kids - helping boys to grow crops and girls to can food. It encouraged youth to demonstrate new practices, so that parents would see their success and adopt the practices. Most of our society was agricultural at that time," Eller said. "But as society became more urban, there was a movement of 4-H into urban areas."

In the late 1960s, the state Legislature funded a special 4-H urban program in Hartford. While successful in involving many children and their families, funding was reduced each year and eventually removed from the budget, she said.

"Kids and society at large need 4-H more today than ever," Eller said. "It can create a sense of attachment and belonging, not only in the local community but also a connection to the state, nation and world."

Life skills
Today's 4-H focuses on helping 9-19 year-olds learn life skills in nine areas: citizenship, leadership, communication and expressive arts, healthy lifestyles, science and technological literacy, family and consumer sciences, plants and animals, and work force preparation.

Meg Andrews, an elementary school teacher at Helen Grant School in New Haven and a 4-H leader, has been involved in the Hartford 4-H program since she was 8.

"They were just beginning to do urban 4-H programs when I first became involved," she said. "It was still sewing and arts and crafts. In middle school, they started teaching public speaking. Now, it's a completely different world. As a 4-H leader, I find it enhances the school curriculum - and that wasn't always the case. The biggest change for me is the enhanced science and technology components. It makes it more user-friendly to urban children."

Cooperative Extension System staff are working with people from the University and the state to develop new curriculum to best suit children's needs. Those involved are in the President's Office, Office of Communications, UCIMT, William Benton Museum of Art, Institute of Materials Sciences, Extended and Continuing Education, Health Services, School of Business Administration, School of Engineering, School of Family Studies, Women's Center, Labor Education Center, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the departments of communication sciences, dramatic arts, education, psychology, personnel and physics.

"4-H kids today will be learning to eat right and exercise, participate in community decisions, speak in public, operate a computer, care for the environment and write resumes," Eller said. "But the essence of 4-H has stayed the same - linking caring adults with children and teen-agers."