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Ages & Stages of Youth Development

By Jessica Lawrenz | 4-H Youth Development Agent


   It doesn’t matter if you are a formal educator, a Sunday school teacher, a 4-H Club Leader, or a grandparent taking your grandchild on a weekend trip, it is really important to understand that projects and activities need to be tailored to the age and developmental stage of youth. For an activity to have a lasting impact on youth, it needs to be designed to encourage them to grow and develop physically, socially, intellectually, and emotionally.

   According to the 4-H Thriving Model, how youth programs are planned and led, makes a huge difference in the impact of the program on youth. In order to have the biggest impact, programs should consider eight critical principles of program quality. These include:

  1. Physical and psychological safety- youth need to feel safe and be able to interact positively with others.
  2. Appropriate structure – whether it is a club meeting or leadership camp, programs must have clear and consistent rules and expectations, with clear boundaries and age-appropriate monitoring.
  3. Supportive relationships- all youth need to feel warmth from and closeness to others. Youth need to feel others care about and support them.
  4. Opportunities to belong- all youth need to feel included in a meaningful way, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, sexual orientations, or ability. Youth should have opportunities to share their culture and heritage with others and to forge a positive identify.
  5. Positive social norms – Youth should experience clear rules and expectations for participating, including the values, morals, and ethical expectations.
  6. Support for efficacy and mattering – Youth should be taken seriously and respected for their ideas and contributions. Youth should be given opportunities to develop responsibility and be challenged to set and achieve goals.
  7. Opportunities for skill building – Youth need to develop physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional and social skills as they grow and develop. Programs should provide opportunities for youth to develop these skills, skills that support a young person into adulthood and the workplace.
  8. Integration of family, school and community – Youth in 4-H do best when there is a connection to their 4-H experience with their family, school, and community. This is why 4-H programs begin at the local level, in the community where youth can practice their emerging leadership skills as they grow and develop.

   In the Ages and Stages of 4-H Youth Development model, there are four areas of development that are focused on including physical, intellectual, social, and emotional. The model is broken down into five groups for ages including Early Childhood (ages 5-8), Middle Childhood (ages 9-11), Young Teens (ages 12-14), Middle Teens (ages 15-17), and Older Teens (ages 18-19).

   Youth in Early Childhood are still practicing large and small motor skills. They may not be physically able to complete some tasks, and others will be messy as they have a harder time manipulating materials. Short activities should be created that develop new skills and can be successfully completed. Flexibility and patience is important when working with early childhood.

   Youth in Middle Childhood have shorter attention spans and enthusiasm for trying new things. It is important to plan several shorter activities during program time rather than one longer activity. Activities should be diverse and could include games that are interactive and utilize large and small motor movement.

   Young Teens have the skills to plan and evaluate their own work. Encourage these youth to take a larger role in planning activities. Let them make decisions on their own, although those decisions should be low-stake. Since this stage tends to be more emotional than others, activities should be engaging, fact-based, and non-judgmental.

   Middle Teens are often interested in the well-being of the greater community. Adult facilitators can help them create opportunities to address some of these needs. Activities should involve real-life problem-solving situations, and could involve civic and community issues and service projects. Middle teens like to work in small groups with increased responsibility and self-exploration that increase self-worth.

   Older Teens and Young Adults are preparing for major life changes. They are thinking about moving out on their own, deciding what to do after they graduate, etc. Provide youth with opportunities to explore different options including leadership roles. Invite them to have conversations with adult sounding boards. They can plan and make progress with little direction from adults.

   Young people grow and mature at different ages but the general characteristics provided in Ages & Stages can help you create and collect activities that are likely to be successful with all groups of youth, prepare youth for their next stage of development, and evaluate and modify unsuccessful activities.