What is Youth Development?

Youth development is the process of growing up, developing one's skills and abilities and meeting one's personal and social needs, such as feeling physically and emotionally safe, cared for, valued and useful. All youth will find ways to meet their basic needs, build skills and values, and use their skills, talents, energies and time in ways that make them feel good and powerful. The challenge is to promote positive youth development and plan quality experiences with young people.

Positive Youth Development

The focus of positive youth development is to meet developmental needs and provide opportunities to meet these needs in positive ways. What does a 4-H group look like when positive youth development happens? We see positive youth-adult relationships, skill building activities, youth participation and leadership. Youth experience the five C's of positive youth development:

  • Competence
  • Confidence
  • Connection
  • Character
  • Caring

Find out how well your 4-H group is doing at promoting positive youth development by visiting the Illinois 4-H website. This site features a questionnaire to help youth and adults determine what's working and what can be improved. It also provides examples of activities to emphasize and strengthen each positive youth development element.

To accomplish positive youth development in 4-H, we use the Essential Elements of 4-H to guide our program.

Essential Elements of 4-H

The Essential Elements of 4-H focus on positive outcomes for young people.


  • Youth have positive relationships with caring adults where they learn together and respect each other.
  • Youth feel included, motivated and have important roles as participants and leaders.
  • Youth feel physically and emotionally safe and are able to participate fully. A safe environment encourages honesty, trust and respect among peers and adults.


  • Youth develop self-worth by contributing in meaningful ways.
  • Youth experience success by completing activities appropriate for their stage of development and learning style.
  • Youth set goals and celebrate accomplishments.
  • Youth participate in new experiences and opportunities and learn and grow from successes and failures.


  • Youth are encouraged to try new things and learn about themselves.
  • Youth discover and practice their interests and skills, test their independence and take control of their lives.
  • Youth can influence people and events through decision making and action.
  • Youth gain self-discipline and responsibility, understand themselves better and become independent thinkers through 4-H leadership opportunities.


  • Youth have opportunities to value service and practice service for others.
  • Youth feel their lives have meaning and purpose.
  • Youth connect to communities and give back to others.

Ages and Stages of Youth Development

4-H volunteers play an important role in helping youth grow and develop. As you plan group projects and activities, it's helpful to understand the characteristics of each age group. By understanding the ages and stages of each group, you'll have realistic expectations for what most kids can do physically, emotionally, intellectually and socially.

Use this fact sheet for general information on developmental ages and stages: Ages and Stages of 4-H Youth Development - by Jamie Tomek, Extension Assistant; Mary Jo Williams, State 4-H Youth Development Specialist. Missouri 4-H Youth Development Programs

Experiential Learning

The educational philosophy of the 4-H program is summed up with the phrase: "Learning by Doing." Experiential learning is more than just doing activities. It involves discussing the activity, drawing conclusions from the activity and applying these conclusions to the real world. Leaders can enhance 4-H members' learning and skill development by using the experiential learning process in every club activity. When parents are encouraged to use the process as they help their children prepare for demonstrations or contests and talk about their experiences after they have happened, the whole family learns. Turn to any National 4-H Cooperative Curriculum Service project manual to learn more about experiential learning or visit the national 4-H curriculum or view the PowerPoint at the national 4-H headquarters.

Vibrant Youth Groups

Is your 4-H group pulsating with energy and are the youth thriving? Find out how vibrant your group is and learn ways to build a highly effective club.

4-H Believes.

  • Youth have an inherent right to be valued members of the community.
  • Learning happens when youth are engaged in experiential learning (planning, doing, reflecting, applying).
  • Diversity is fundamental to learning.
  • Experiences are enhanced through our unique connections with local county government, land grant universities and federal (USDA) partners.
  • Relationships among youth and caring adults, peers and families can benefit everyone.
  • Communities benefit when youth are active citizens.
  • Developing life skills is essential for youth to reach their fullest potential.
  • Everyone needs to have opportunities to feel valued and recognized.
  • Learning should be fun!

—Adapted from University of Minnesota Extension

Youth Engagement

Youth can and should be involved in planning, implementing and evaluating 4-H programs and activities. In youth-adult partnerships, young people and adults work together, sharing power in decision making and learning from each other.

4-H clubs and groups will not experience long-term success without involving youth in decision making about things that affect them.

4-H groups benefit from youth involvement in the following ways:

  • Fresh, new ideas
  • Open and honest comments
  • More people to share responsibilities
  • Greater willingness by other youth to participate

Benefits for youth to be involved and engaged in decision making include opportunities to:

  • Learn and practice new skills, talents and abilities
  • Explore different situations and points of view, discuss and reflect on ideas and choices
  • Express themselves and be heard and taken seriously by others
  • Work together with adults and other youth to plan, implement and evaluate activities and programs
  • Contribute ideas and suggestions for projects, activities and programs
  • Feel accepted through cooperation and teamwork
  • Understand how programs are funded and help with fundraising or advocacy
  • Give back to their communities through community service activities
  • Learn how to respond appropriately to difficult emotions in challenging situations
  • Receive support, encouragement and recognition from adults and other youth

By the time a 4-H member has experienced a few leadership and community service opportunities, he or she should be ready to accept new roles and responsibilities to help make changes in their communities. Communities also benefit from youth on county committees, city councils, school boards, advisory groups and many other organizations that make decisions affecting young people.

Approaches to Youth Engagement

There are eight pathways to engage youth to partner with adult community leaders. Partnership is at the core of each of the approaches. The eight elements are youth service, leadership, decision making and governance, philanthropy, civic and political engagement, organizing, media, and research and evaluation. The following is a description of how youth contribute to their communities:

Youth Service

Volunteerism, community service and service learning are examples of youth service.

  • Volunteerism - examples include cleaning up a neighborhood park, feeding the hungry or assisting senior citizens. Volunteerism projects are limited in scope, sometimes a one-time activity, usually not ongoing or part of a larger community development strategy.
  • Community service - activities encourage youth and adults to work together to solve community problems and improve quality of life. The goal of community service is for a young person to understand that he or she plays a role in positive community change.
  • Service learning - engages young people to solve problems in their schools or communities as part of their academic studies. The goal of service learning is for all parties to learn, grow and benefit from the experience.

Youth Leadership

When youth exhibit "youth leadership," they have the skills to solve problems, consciousness to understand community problems and the compassion to do something about them. Leadership skills are developed and practiced over time.

Youth in Governance

Youth influence decisions and determine outcomes in youth governance or decision making. Examples include youth hiring staff, designing programs, leading youth groups, training volunteers or learning more about the needs in a community.

Youth Philanthropy

Youth give their time, talents and treasures. Not all people have personal financial resources to give to the greater good, but can still participate in philanthropy. Some youth participate in fundraising. Another example is a group of youth trained in grant making whereby they review grant proposals written by other youth groups who need money for community service projects. Based on the philanthropic group's understanding of the needs and priorities in the community, they select the project that best meets those needs.

Youth Civic and Political Engagement

Three ways youth engage civically and politically include helping charities, encouraging adults to vote or take action on an issue, or expressing their positions to legislative decision makers on important issues. Youth who communicate with elected officials and call for change are civically and politically engaged.

Youth Organizing

Youth organizers care about and advocate for social justice issues such as discrimination, racism, classism and oppression created by unjust public policies.

Youth Media/Research and Evaluation

Youth create, produce, distribute and are involved in all aspects of media to promote important community issues, improve coverage of young people and youth issues, and organize campaigns. An example of youth media is a group of Latino youth who produce a cable television program highlighting individuals and programs in the community. Youth determine the content of the program, interview community leaders and their peers, translate the content into Spanish, film the program, edit and produce the program, and persuade media outlets to air their program.

Young people engaged in finding the root causes of community issues are involved in youth research and evaluation. An example of youth participation in community research and evaluation is a community leader and educator involving a group of youth in a community development issue. The youth take photos of their community where young people enjoy being and feel comfortable, and places that are unsafe or uncomfortable. They write about their feelings and the information or data the youth collected is used to redevelop a downtown.

—Adapted from Search Institute