Authentic Learning with 4-H

My boys have been 4-H members for a number of years, but as I tell people: we’re not really animal people. I get strange looks with that statement, especially when I tell them I love the 4-H organization. The county fair, with all those show animals, is the primary event, but we’ve also participated in a marine ecology tournament, a 5K run, and the annual non-livestock fair.

A picture of two hand sewn items with ribbons attached

C, age 8 made a handsewn needlebook and a badge.

4-H Non-Livestock Fair

My boys experience authentic learning with 4-H through the non-livestock fair. They don’t show animals — which is a good thing since we gave away our chickens last year! However, the non-livestock fair provides the perfect opportunity to showcase their homeschool work. According to Lori Pickert, author of Project-Based Homeschooling, students need an audience to show what they’ve learned (in whatever way they choose to present it).

Although Lori advocates for complete self-control, I recommend it only after students have been creating projects for a couple of years. I found that when my kids were younger, they needed guidance. They didn’t have the experiential knowledge of how to create a “final” project.* Initially, I offered some suggestions and had them choose what type of project they wanted to make (after determining what they wanted to learn about). It was less overwhelming for a young child. They had a topic, and they could see what they were working toward. That might be a poster, a written report, an art piece or a computer program. (FYI – we did projects and traditional school work).

A picture of a trifold with the title: My Shell Project

C has really been into shells this year and delved deeper into the topic as a result of this poster.

A Project-Based Learning Venue

The 4-H non-livestock fair provides a great opportunity to share their projects with others. In addition, there are a number of projects to see for inspiration. Kids can submit traditional projects, such as book reports or tri-fold posters. My kids usually do a couple of those projects, but also submit original artwork, sewing pieces and woodworking projects.

C’s Scratch project. The topic was a chapter from Story of the World concerning Louis XIV: The Sun God.

A picture of two wooden slat boxes stained dark brown.

Each boy made one of these wooden boxes with the help from a fellow homeschool parent. He cut the wood, but the boys put it together and stained it (with his guidance).

Reflecting on the Learning Process

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably tell you that I have been a non-livestock fair judge for the last two years. Although the day usually falls on, or near, my birthday, I love the experience. All day, I get to speak with kids about their projects. They have a receptive audience in me, but they also get my teaching experience. This year, I was the art and craft judge. I spoke with some very, very talented students. I also encountered some very reserved and hesitant students. I dealt with them differently, but asked every single one: what is your favorite part of this project (and/or what did you think you did well)? I also asked them: what do you think you could do better (if anything)?

Not only do my own children benefit from reflecting on their learning, but they get to see a bunch of other kids doing the same. Like I said, it’s a fabulous organization.

A picture of a printout from the Scratch web site. Printout has blue and purple ribbons attached.

R, age 12, made a Harry Potter computer program in Scratch. (Yes – 4H judges computer programs)!

**The way I conduct project-based learning at home is slightly different than Lori Pickert recommends. I think students should have a choice. They should be able to define and redefine how they want to showcase their learning. However, I don’t think just reading about something constitutes a project (at least not past 2nd grade). I need them to have some reflection on their learning — whether that’s by writing, doing a poster or creating a Scratch computer program. The research on learning (and growing a growth mindset) means you have to help them push through the frustrating parts of not knowing.