If your image of 4H begins and ends at the county fair, you’re missing out. Yes, the organization began as a program to teach farm youth modern agricultural methods, but that was over 100 years ago. Today’s 4H is the largest out of school kids’ organization in the country, serving over 6.5 million kids with programs on everything from public speaking to rocketry.

“The 4H program has grown and changed with the times,” says Laura Garner, the organization's Communications Director. Today’s participants are more likely to live in cities and suburbs than in rural areas, and all programs are administered locally. “4H creates programming to meet the needs of young people in a particular community,” says Garner. So, kids in one town may focus on photography and nutrition while those in another study DNA analysis and GPS mapping.

One thing that hasn’t changed is 4H’s commitment to “head, heart, health and hands” – in other words, the mission to help kids learn about science and engineering, healthy living, and citizenship with hands-on projects. Funded both privately and by the USDA and the land-grant university system, 4H is able to offer many of its programs either free or at minimal charge.

Various 4H programs are available for kids ages 5-19, typically through schools, after-school programs, community groups and summer camps, as well as at US military bases abroad. Many of the teachers are extension educators from land-grant universities like Penn State and UC Davis. However, far more are volunteers; there are currently 540,000. They serve an ethnically diverse group split almost evenly between male and female. All strive to provide kids with a sense of belonging, encourage generosity, nurture budding independence, and offer opportunities to master challenges.

Sound good? There's no time like the present! To learn more about the national 4H program and see what your local branch has to offer, visit 4H's website