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Growing Up, Speaking Up

Learning Objectives

  • Participants will understand the importance of youth voice with 4-H clubs.
  • Participants will identify ways to incorporate youth voice in programming.
  • Participants will understand how youth voice can help with retention.

Essential Elements: Belonging and Independence

Youth Voice is the opinions and contributions youth members give to an organization or program (Fox, 2008). In 4‑H, we believe in the power of young people and of providing life-skill development.  According to Acosta and Holt (1991, p. 4), "designing programs to meet felt needs of clientele is definitely the key to maintaining involvement." When youths experience being heard and their ideas being used in programs and activities, they are more likely to attend, participate and stay involved (Acosta and Holt (1991, p. 4).

Awareness of the barriers to youth voice must be considered to overcome them. These include: time and scheduling conflicts, lack of experience, organizational culture, lack of respect, low involvement in the decision-making process and a lack of transportation. Adult power and control provides a significant hurdle to authentic engagement of youth voice in the decision-making process (Fox, 2008). As adults, we often feel that it is easier to take care of tasks and plans ourselves instead of taking the time to support older youth in those endeavors. However, this is vital in order to engage older youth as well as providing youth role models to younger members. The 4-H motto is “learn by doing” and decision-making and event planning is no different than project work or educational pieces.

Youth voice happens when youth feel comfortable speaking up, when their ideas are taken seriously, and when they take ownership by helping to plan and lead activities. Opportunities for youth to take the lead or have a say need to be “something actively created and accomplished by youth themselves” because it is “critical to view youths as capable of making decisions” (Gillard & Witt, 2008, p. 178). As a leader, use some club planning time to note the activities or events that can be lead or co-lead by older youth. Encourage them to take the lead and support them when they show interest or need some assistance moving forward with an idea.

Clubs are designed to include youth voice with member officers. These officers have the responsibility for running the meeting, taking notes, taking roll, forming motions, and planning events. They still need the support of adult leaders to accomplish many plans, but when given the opportunity 4-H members can accomplish most club tasks. Clubs without officers can still encourage older youth to take roles or have a say in event and trip planning, fundraising, or the yearly goals of the club. This can also be fostered through 4-H camps, skill teams, or any 4-H group. As the leader, the challenge is to step aside and allow the members to learn leadership skills through using the 4-H motto of “learn by doing”. With each club meeting, leaders can take the opportunity to say think about whether a task can be completed without any help from an adult, with support from an adult, or whether it needs to be handled completely by an adult. Committees will involve even more members in planning and accomplishing club tasks. While mistakes may happen, so will growth and a belief that their opinions and voice matter.

Making it Real

A great place to start is letting youths select themes, decorations, or food orders. These simple decisions give members control over their own activities. This is vital for older members who are used to expressing their voices in other groups, teams or programs.

Middle school age youths can teach and lead craft activities and science experiments with club members. Make sure to provide hands on training, the instructions, and small group teaching experiences. For example, four 4-H members could lead four different 15-minute activities. As members rotate through this will provide a one-hour youth led club program.

Service projects are good opportunities for true youth involvement and engagement. Some service projects that can be led by youths include:

  • Cards for service personnel or the nursing home. Members can determine needed supplies, make the cards, make the arrangements for a visit, and in some cases hand deliver them.
  • A benefit bake sale or concession stand. 4-Her’s can prepare the menus, buy supplies, bake the food, and run the stand (including the cash box with some help!).
  • Packing care packages or backpacks for those in need. Let the members choose the recipients and organize the process to experience being heard, then encourage them to take more ownership.
  • Painting or mild physical labor at 4-H camps or community spaces. Guide 4-Hers in how to do it but let them take the lead for the project. Youths can handle tools and organizational responsibility.  Involve them with buying the paint and supplies too.


Think of a time that members have expressed their voices with success. What was the improvement? How did they react? Now, think of a time they expressed their voices without success? What could have been done to support or hone the voice more?

Club Tool Box

Always ask the questions:

  • Does this activity or event have input from youth members?
  • Are youths contributing as much as they are capable?
  • As a leader am I supportive of the ideas being expressed during club meetings and working to incorporate them into our activities?
  • Is there training to provide them with the skills to help them be successful?

Learn More

Read 4-H Youth Voices, Stories of 4-H youth who have created positive changes in their communities:


  • Acosta, D. T. & Holt, B. A. (1991). Give teens the programs they want... and need. Journal of Extension [On-line], 29(1) Article 1FEA8.
  • Fox, J., Tarifa, T., Machtmes, K. (2008). A Qualitative Examination of Youth Voice in the Decision-Making Process within the 4-H Youth Development Program: Promoting Promising Practices in Overcoming Barriers. Journal of Youth Development [On-line] 3(3),
  • Gillard, A. & Witt, P. (2008). Recruitment and Retention in Youth Programs. Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration, 26 (2), 177-188. Retrieved from
  • Sirangelo, J. (2020) Youth Voices: The Wave of a Subconscious Ally - 4-H. National 4-H Council. Retrieved from National 4-H Peer Reviewed Checkmark of Approval.
Author:  Alex Coffman , WVU Extension Agent,  Grant County
Published: September 2022

Strong 4-H Clubs Series passed National 4-H Peer Review in February 2022