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Youth Benefits of a County Fair Experience Extend Beyond Just Having Fun, Says 4-H Specialist

According to a recent article in the Journal of Extension, the greatest motivator for participating in a county fair is “having fun.” However, Jeremy Elliot-Engel, 4-H youth development specialist with University of Missouri Extension, says participating in a county fair is much more.
“Youth who participate in a fair also learn independence receive feedback, mastery and gain positive relationships with caring adults,” said Elliot-Engel.
The county fair experience allows youth to balance their desire to have fun with the responsibilities of preparing and caring for livestock for exhibition all under a time structure.
“It is an opportunity for youth to learn how to balance their responsibilities with their desire to have fun.  Youth that go to fair with livestock projects learn how to handle the world,” said Elliot-Engel. “They have deadlines, like show times, that they need to meet. Their efforts are linked to their success with ribbons and placing). And they sometimes learn the world is not always fair depending on the judge that day.  These experiences all build independence.”
Throughout the year, 4-H youth are working on projects in all project areas (not just livestock).  A county fair provides an opportunity for each young person to get feedback on their project.
“County fair competition is not about who wins grand champion, or who gets a blue ribbon, it is about learning about how your effort and skill has paid off,” said Elliot-Engel.
A county fair also provides an opportunity to demonstrate mastery.  A youth starting out may not know how to prepare their animal for the show ring, and will ask another 4-H youth.  This mentoring is innate to 4-H, and each year youth will return, growing and learning the skills necessary to have a successful project. Eventually, they will be in the role as a mentor, rather than the mentee.
“When youth are asked to share their information, this is when they feel they have reached a level of mastery because they know enough to be able to give back to their community, peers and the younger youth,” said Elliot-Engel.
Of course, there is no fun, mentoring or feedback unless there are also volunteers and parents helping everyone be successful.  It should be no surprise that it takes caring adults to volunteer to make a fair happen and help youth gain important life skills from the fair experience.
“This year at the fair, when we are all hot, sweaty and tired, keep in mind that we are there for more than fun. We stay because of the many benefits our young people receive that will last far longer than any placing, ribbon or check,” said Elliot-Engel.
Missouri 4-H is University of Missouri Extension’s youth development program. The 4-H program helps to create opportunities for young people to be valued, contributing members of their community.
To learn more about 4-H — the world’s largest youth-serving organization — and how to get involved locally, contact your local University of Missouri County Extension Office.