You can teach kids long division, and you can drill them in handwriting. You can ask them to write a description, learn to spell, or even read a science chapter about animals. Chances are none of that will be too exciting for them, and if any of it sticks around, you should consider yourself lucky. Do you remember half of the stuff you learned in school?
I’ve found a curriculum for teaching my oldest (age ten, grade four) that is engaging, hands-on, of interest to him personally, and ripe with social activities and tangible rewards. I used to label it as “just extracurricular” until I realized it already contains practically every skill my kids will need in life, and it comes in a form that they want to embrace. This is the good stuff, and it’s called 4-H.
Don’t brush off 4-H as “just about raising animals,” or “only for farm kids.” 4-H offers a tremendous range of project areas including photography, bicycles, art and drama, sewing, baking, model rocketry, small engines, ecology, all sorts of sciences, and of course, animals. You can go here to check out all of the projects for ages 8-18 (there is also a level for ages 5-7 with a smaller but very relevant and fun curriculum).
This is our second year in the program. Kids get to select whatever project areas interest them, and with an adult’s help, they complete project book activities throughout the year. They also maintain financial records for their project books to keep track of how much is being spent, and they must write a project story at the end of the year. At 4-H meetings, the kids get a chance to demonstrate their projects in front of the group, learn leadership, and also to perform acts of community service.
In our county, we have a 4-H show at the county fair every February. This, of course, involves live animal shows, but it goes so far above and beyond that. For example, my son is showing his rabbit, but he will also be judged on baking, drawing, photography, woodworking, model building, and a tabletop display (think science fair project board). He has the opportunity to earn a white, red, or blue ribbon and premium for each of his entries based solely on the amount of work he puts into them. Then, any entry that earns a blue ribbon goes on to be judged against the other kids’ entries for a potential Best in Show. This gives every kid a chance to do well based on their own abilities.
For one of his entries this year, he chose to create a tabletop that tied into one of his project books : rabbits. Several weeks ago, he made a 3-D, touchable display from a photograph of his rabbit and some fake fur. He then took this to the 4-H club meeting and demonstrated the finer points of showing a rabbit, and shared his display.
He knew he wanted to add this to his tabletop for the fair. He knew he wanted to also add a rabbit parts chart and a 3-D water bottle and crock, but he wasn’t certain what else should go on the board, or how it would be arranged. Last year was his first year in 4-H, and he made a tabletop exhibit on bicycles and received a white award; this year he was determined to put a lot more effort into his board and hopefully win a blue award. It amazes me to see him so engaged.
That brings me to today. (You knew I’d get here eventually, right?) Today, we were working on his tabletop exhibit. Together, we measured the tabletop and wrote down the dimensions. We talked about what he wanted to cover on his board. He wanted to include basic information about owning a rabbit, personal information about his own rabbit, and information on showing a rabbit. He decided which part of the tri-fold board would hold which topic, and we discussed how it would fit. In just a few minutes of sketching on scratch paper, he had to measure, multiply, divide, estimate, and add. Rockin’ the math skills.
First, he tackled the rabbit parts chart. Using the 4-H project book as a guide, I helped him sketch a copy of the rabbit’s outline, after which he went over with a pencil to add the details. He then was able to use a ruler and write out all of the rabbit’s parts using the research we had already accumulated in his project book. Finally, after double-checking his spelling, he traced over the rabbit and the words with markers. In just that simple chart, he utilized skills in spelling, handwriting, art, science, and research.
Next, he wanted to create a list of items needed to own a rabbit. I asked him how we could add to a basic list to make it more interesting; I was thinking photographs. He surprised me by suggesting we add the approximate prices of items needed and include a total amount, so someone looking at his tabletop at the fair could view his list and know how much it would cost to start their own rabbit project. He went through his project book and selected basic items needed (a pedigreed rabbit, a cage, a feeder and water bottle, and rabbit food) and wrote a mock-up of the list and how to arrange the photos and words. I then helped him mark out measurements on his final list, and he added all of the written list points and went over them with marker. (He would have added the photos today, but the poor printer cartridge ran dry. That’s what having a recently coupon-crazy mom does for you.) In creating this list, he embraced dynamic thinking, writing, spelling, handwriting, research, measurement, division, computer skills, and design.
Tomorrow, he will continue adding to his project board, with the kind of excitement he never brings to “regular” homeschool. I am grateful for the learning opportunities 4-H provides us and the chance to work with my son to strengthen his interests.