Although COVID-19 changed how we socialize with others, 4-H maintained steady opportunities for families to learn, make connections and find joy in their communities. 3,520 youth engaged in 4-H programs across Northeast Minnesota last year.
With more time at home and, in many cases, fewer activities available, families have been engaging in new and surprising 4-H projects. Woodworking, hosted by Extension educators from Cass, Itasca and St. Louis Counties, is one of many projects offered across the northeast that are fun, surprising and hands-on.
“The increased 4-H opportunities offered have meant that my kids can try new things they would not have otherwise,” said Kristy Storbakken from Mille Lacs County. “My 12 year-old son thoroughly enjoyed the virtual woodworking class because it involved using his mind and hands.”
Nicole Foesch, also from Mille Lacs County, was unsure if the pivot from in-person to virtual programming would be a joyful one for her family of five 4-H’ers. They tried virtual county showcases and look forward to outdoor projects in the spring. “An unexpected surprise has been a slower pace to life. The more flexible 4-H programming allowed us to enjoy valuable time with family and make the best out of every situation.”
Isolation has been a big factor for Minnesotans over the past year. Educators from across the northeast have been finding innovative ways to support youth connections. 170 youth from the northeast participated in virtual 4-H experiences at last count and 29% of them were brand new to Extension programming.
Amber Sixberry, Extension educator in Mille Lacs County, expanded access to learning experiences and increased connections between youth in her community using social media. Instead of live virtual learning sessions, Sixberry created weekly challenges and posted them to the Mille Lacs County Facebook page.
This ensured youth and families could participate in 4-H project learning whenever their internet access was the strongest. “Each activity encouraged youth to draw their friends and family in the experience and share their challenges with each other,” Sixberry said. The most recent challenge was to blow the best frozen bubble. It got youth from across Mille Lacs and the region outside to make the most of the frigid February weather. Youth proudly posted their best bubble online, garnering a healthy balance of competition and encouragement from fellow 4-H’ers.
Educators from Aitkin, St. Louis and Kanabec Counties collaborated to host a regional learning community called 4-H Science of Snow as another way for youth across the northeast to connect with each other. The program features weekly virtual visits with meteorologists who explain different factors of winter weather and answer all the kids’ questions. Two of the participants were the Hinsz sisters from Crow Wing County. “It was my favorite online activity because I got to learn about meteorology,” said Maura. “ And I like meeting the kids from different counties on Zoom calls,” said her sister Evie.
Learning new things
Extension educators are cultivating new programs centered around the interests of young people. 4-H Gross Science, hosted by Allison Hanson and Brian Kinziger, was suggested by youth who wanted to learn about the types of science some might find distasteful or unappealing. From tooth decay to boogers, youth learned how the human body works through hands-on activities.
Some youth from the northeast are using virtual learning opportunities to explore topics offered by educators hundreds of miles away. Brita Carlson from St. Louis County, has been an avid participant in many of the virtual offerings this past year, including 4-H ag and hort afternoon adventures, which is led by Brian McNeill from Morris. “I enjoy gardening,” said Brita. “The adventures have taught me how to properly identify soil and repurpose vegetable scraps that we would normally throw away.”
84% of youth report that 4-H virtual programming has been beneficial for their learning. But what about the youth who cannot access virtual programs because of inadequate or stable internet connections? “Before the pandemic, we didn’t need to worry about online access. Most of our programs happened in-person right in the community where people lived,” said Jan Derdowski, based in Grand Rapids. To combat this inequitable access, Extension educators across Northeast Minnesota banded together.
Nicole Kudrle is one the educators who are finding innovative ways of delivering virtual content to families without a stable internet connection. Kudrle is leading a team that’s developed 4-H On Demand, which delivers virtual programming on DVDs and USB drives to youth who cannot otherwise access online learning experiences. “Instead of logging onto a live video, youth can access the learning and project experience whenever it works for them.” said Kudrle. “This delivery method is still in its infancy but is an important way we can engage more youth and families who experience technology disparities.”
Regardless of where a young person lives, 4-H has high-quality learning and leading experiences available. Find your next 4-H learning experience!