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4H offers life lessons

Astrid Niemi, 12, with her rabbit. Astrid is a member of 4H. Photo by Joshua Huston

4H: Life lessons that stick

Teaching responsibility, leadership, communication

It’s 6:30 p.m. and 16-year-old Haven Loh sits at a computer deep inside a former elementary school that houses the Highline STEM Center in Burien. The main hallway looks like a robot’s parking lot, lined with builds from years past. The basketball court has been transformed into a robot playing field, with wooden posts, goals, and stations where students maneuver remote controls.

Believe it or not, this is 4H. Yes, the very same organization hailed for teaching kids the ins and outs of agriculture and animal care since 1902. We’ll get to the animals in a minute.

But in Burien, where he’s the technician for the Skunk Works Robotics team, Haven has created a pre-competition checklist to make sure that the team’s robot is in top condition before each match. No wire, motor, cable, or battery is overlooked. 

The list is 85 items long, but Haven is unphased. To them, robotics equals “joy.” 

4H offers life lessons in the form of robotics

The Tekerz robotics team at a 4-H competition. Photo by Joshua Huston

Learning through doing

Since joining the team, they’ve learned computer-assisted drawing (“I hated it–then I started really enjoying it”), critical thinking (“everything has a why”), design, mechanics, and prototyping (“really satisfying”). 

Then of course, there’s competing (“so much fun”). 

Haven is not alone. At the STEM Center, they are surrounded by dozens of students coding, fundraising, operating a floor-standing drill press, and eating brownies. Together, they represent multiple robotics teams, hailing from 16 different schools—and homeschools—across greater Seattle.  They’re all 4-H kids. They might not know much about the organization or what the name represents (for the record: head, heart, hands, and health), but they still embody the century-old organization’s values.  

4H history: Always at the edge

Since its founding, 4-H has involved youth in the cutting edge of science and technology.

In the 1800s, agricultural agents noticed that many farmers were unwilling to accept new research. “They were like, ‘Oh, maybe the kids will be more open to it,’” says Alyssa Bowers, 4-H faculty and director of the Washington State University King County Extension. “They started working with the farmer’s kids and the kids ended up bringing new practices and the research back to their parents.”

Those farm kids were the first members of 4-H.

Today, agriculture projects—specifically animal care—remain popular with 4-H, where most clubs are open to kids aged five to 18. The members of the Kelsey Creek Critters 4-H Club in Bellevue meet twice a month to raise rabbits, cavies, and poultry and compete at the King County Fair. They keep meticulous records, run board meetings, and learn animal science with the support of adult volunteers.

4H offers life lessons

Photo by Charlene Dy

Animal care is not just fun, it’s a science

At home in Bellevue, club member Astrid Niemi, age 12, cradles an English Spot in her arms. 

Earlier that week, Astrid clipped the rabbit’s nails, gave it a bath to ensure its fur was immaculate, checked its ears for mites, and confirmed that it was healthy enough to bring for a rabbit show on Saturday at the Enumclaw Expo Center. Most important for showing, says Astrid, “No urine stains!” 

Ultimately, the rabbit doesn’t win Best of Breed, but Astrid isn’t too disappointed. 4-H has brought big responsibilities: She serves as the club’s recorder during meetings, cares for two rabbits, and, in an agreement with her parents, pays for 50% of the animal costs, including vet bills. Even so, she’s in it for the fun. 

Her mom, Heather Niemi, the club’s co-leader, says: “I thought that what we were getting into with 4-H was just more responsibility and education around her specific animal, right? But it was so much more than that.”

Beyond animal education

“There’s poise. The ability to interact with the public,” Niemi adds. “Our kids learn how to make eye contact. How to present well. Explain their critical thinking to an adult. Run a business meeting.” 

This is all by design.

“You get them in the door with the fun animals or the cool robotics,” says Bowers, “But we’re teaching them important life skills, even if it’s hidden behind all the fun things that they get to do.”

Volunteers and partnerships are what enable 4-H to provide a wide array of programming, while still staying true to the organization’s values. 

An organization that relies on the community

Skunk Works, for instance, is a 4-H team that competes through FIRST Robotics, an organization whose founder, Dean Kamen, famously said, “We’re not using kids to build robots–we’re using robots to build kids.” It’s a very 4-H sentiment.

All 4-H programs share three things: mentorship, hands-on learning, and the opportunity to be a leader. 

Those life lessons stick. In 2012, a Tufts University study showed that compared to those who did not participate, teens who took part in 4-H when they were younger were more likely to make positive contributions to their communities and abstain from risky behaviors. 

In 2023, a new study followed those same kids into adulthood and found that they were now three times more likely to participate in community service, twice as likely to help people they don’t know, and twice as likely to report leading lives of purpose. 

Read more:

Fostering compassion for animals has big benefits

The Screentime Consultant: On “child-friendly” devices

Pets are good for kids; here’s why | Ask the Pediatrician

About the Author

Charlene Dy

Charlene Dy writes about kids and the people who love them. A Manila-born Chinese-Canadian, she now lives with her family on the Eastside, where she is definitely that mom chatting you up on the playground.