Explore 4-H

What Is 4-H?

4-H is a community of 6 million young people across the world who are learning how to live healthily, be leaders, become engaged in their communities, and use science and technology to make good decisions for their future and their communities’ future.  

Why 4-H?

The Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program provides opportunities for youth to develop skills that they can use now and throughout their lives. Iowa 4-H builds upon a century of experience as it fosters positive youth development that is based on the needs and strengths of youth, their families, and communities.

Iowa 4-H follows the principles of experiential learning and draws on the knowledge base of Iowa State University and other institutions of higher education in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. The Iowa 4-H Program's vision and mission statements clearly view youth as partners working with caring adults, and as full participants in planning and working for individual and community change.

Vision: Preparing Iowa’s youth to be successful, contributing members of society.

Mission: 4-H empowers youth to reach their full potential through youth-adult partnerships and research-based experiences.

Diversity in Iowa 4-H

In 2016, the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP), which is the national representative leadership and governing body of Cooperative Extension, adopted the 4-H Grows: A Promise to America’s Kids Vision. This vision states that in 10 years:

“4-H will reflect the population demographics, diverse needs, and social conditions of the country. This vision has the elements of inclusion, caring adults, involves at least 1 in 5 youth, and the volunteers and staff reflect the population.”  

Similarly, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is committed to developing and implementing a youth program that goes beyond non-discrimination and affirmative action. The Iowa 4-H Program is built on the principles of Positive Youth Development and must create environments that go beyond inclusion into belonging. 

All those involved with 4-H have an important role in 4-H’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The following primary guidance statements govern inclusion and nondiscrimination policies and efforts.

4-H Focuses on Hands-On Learning

  • In 4-H, youth learn by doing projects that are designed to fit their needs at different ages. Learn about the variety of projects from food to forestry, rockets, and rabbits.
  • 4-H gives kids and teens all kinds of opportunities to experience life skills, to practice them, and be able to use them throughout their lifetime.
  • 4-H teaches young people how to meet their needs for belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity in positive ways.
  • In 4-H, we work with young people in a variety of settings including schools, camps, afterschool, clubs, and other learning environments. (4-H Programs)

The Four Hs

The Iowa 4-H Pledge

It wasn't until 1907 when Jessie Field Shambaugh, from Page County, and superintendent of Wright County Schools, O.H. Benson, started using a three leaf clover for the identity of boys and girls clubs. The three Hs were for:

Head (was trained to think, plan, and reason)
Heart (to be kind, true, and sympathetic)
Hands (to be useful, helpful, and skillful)

In 1911, when O.H. Benson worked in Washington D.C., the idea of the four-leaf clover came into play. He suggested the fourth "H" to stand for Health (to take care of themselves and their community).

The History of the 4-H Emblem

One sunny June morning in 1906 at a one-room country school near Clarion, Iowa, 11 pupils spent their recess outside searching for four-leaf clovers. They had plucked seven clovers when a visitor drove up, the superintendent of schools. At the teacher's suggestion, the children surrendered their good-luck charms and placed the seven clovers into the hands of the superintendent.

He said, "I've been looking for an emblem for the agricultural clubs and the schools of the county, and you have just given me that emblem, the four-leaf clover; it will help explain to young and old the message of a four-square education." (In those early days, 4-H was known as "four-square education," which was based upon educational, physical, moral, and fellowship development.)

The clover was officially adopted as the national emblem in 1911.

4-H at Iowa State University

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. This bill provided "land grants" to enable states to establish colleges of agriculture, mechanic arts, and homemaking, with all phases of instruction. Many of the states acquired land from the government and sold the land, investing the profits to pay for buildings, staff, and associated expenses.

Iowa State University is a "Land Grant University," which was the product of Hatch Act of 1887. It established the foundation for experiment stations for discovering agricultural knowledge.

On May 8, 1914, President Wilson signed the Smith Lever Act, the federal bill that provided the mechanism of obtaining mutual support between the federal, state, and local governments. This bill provided an educational program that was to get its ideas and inspiration from people at all levels, from the farmers of the land to Washington D.C., creating the extension program- the home of 4-H.

4-H Is Based on Research

4-H Youth Development is part of Iowa State University Extension. ISU Extension research shows that Iowa youth credit their 4-H clubs with making them better citizens, leaders, and communicators.

Research from Tufts University shows that 4-H youth are competent, confident, caring, connected, and that they exhibit strong character. The Tufts study shows that 4-H members contribute more to their families and communities, achieve higher grades in school, and are more likely to go to college than youth who are not in 4-H, or even youth who participate in other out-of-school programs. In addition, youth involved in 4-H lead healthier, more productive lives, are less likely to suffer from depression, and are less likely to participate in risky behaviors like drinking and smoking.

Our commitment to providing research-based educational products, whether developed by a county, Iowa State University, or acquired from another source (e.g., external land-grant university, National 4-H, community partner), means that all products must first meet the Iowa 4-H vetting criteria before implementation.

Is the product...

  • filling a documented need in the 4-H program (county, regional, statewide, national)?
  • research based?
  • aligned with 4-H vision, mission, and program priorities?
  • consistent with Positive Youth Development principles and practices?
  • developed in a way that volunteers can implement the product?
  • culturally competent and accessible to all potential audiences?
  • aligned with elements of the Iowa Core Standards?
  • sustainable based on capacity for development and implementation (e.g., funding,  time, partnerships, resources)?

To be approved by the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program, the answer to each of these questions must be “Yes.” If the product does not meet all the criteria above, it must be considered a pilot product. Pilot products must have a plan and timeline to meet the vetting criteria.

Product and pilot product plans must be approved by the Iowa 4-H Youth Development Program before implementation. Furthermore, all new (beyond the pilot stage), high volume and high visibility curricula must undergo ISU Extension and Outreach’s curriculum review process.

4-H Symbolism

The 4-H Colors

The official colors of 4-H are green and white. Green is nature's most common color and stands for springtime, life, youth, and growth. White symbolizes purity and high ideals.

The Four Hs in Iowa today:

  • Head – To use the science, research and critical thinking to make positive choices  
  • Heart – To be welcoming, inclusive, compassionate and kind 
  • Hands – To be generous and give back their community, their country and their world
  • Health -- To take care of themselves and their community by making positive choices