Belonging in a Virtual Environment
The pandemic has affected every aspect of “4-H Life.” From club meetings to county, district, state, and national events, it seems everything is now virtual or has been canceled. Youth are missing the face to face contact they had with their peers and with their caring 4-H leaders. According to Benjamin Houltberg, Vice President of Research & Practice for the Search Institute, in his video, “Lessons for Supportive Adults: Youth Isolation,” research is showing that the loss of contact is affecting youth negatively. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/parental-resource-kit/young-adulthood.html).
In these times, we all have to think out of the box and learn new ways to connect with the youth. Most of those ways involve technology. We have all become familiar with platforms like Zoom or TEAMS, but it can be a challenge to encourage belonging in a virtual environment.
If we look at the Essential Elements of 4-H, “Belonging” has three components: A positive relationship with a caring adult; an inclusive environment; and a safe emotional and physical environment. How can these criteria be met in a virtual world? Most clubs have social media accounts, message groups, and e-mail accessibility. All families need to be included and updated regularly on upcoming events, where to find resources, and club policies. In the virtual meeting, leaders should greet everyone and encourage all to participate in the activities. Roll call can be a special time – a time to introduce a pet, tell a corny joke, or let everyone know what your superpower would be if you had one. Don’t forget to have a “check-up time” – a few minutes to engage in mindfulness activities like deep breathing, visualization, Climer cards, or crafts (https://positivepsychology.com/mindfulness-for-children-kids-activities/).
Educational programs may have to change for a while – but that does not mean they cannot be engaging and valuable! From open houses and awards programs to special interest clubs and escape rooms, virtual meetings are happening everywhere.
Club meetings can include STEM challenges like building towers out of marshmallows and spaghetti; guest speakers from a local museum or university; and practicing public speaking. Members can have a Photo Show, make Vision Boards to share, teach each other about a 4-H event, or compile a newsletter together. For fun, scavenger hunts around the house, exercising together, or playing games like “All My Friends” involve everyone and encourage an inclusive environment. Youth that are especially adept at technology can teach the others about making online games or using Zoom features, while officers can teach members more about parliamentary procedure. Creativity applies to community service as well – from sewing masks for the community to becoming a penpal to an older adult in an assisted living facility or by donating to food banks (https://ysa.org/covid/). The list of activities is endless.
Four-H utilizes several research models for positive youth development: Developmental Assets; Essential Elements; and the 4-H Thriving Model. By incorporating these principles into everything we do, 4-H youth development professionals and volunteers help young people become healthy and productive citizens in the future. In 4-H, we “Make the Best Better” and we “Learn by Doing.” These are certainly not the best of times, but we can make them better by staying in contact with each other frequently, providing unwavering support, using every minute together wisely, and keeping everyone active and having fun by learning new things.