Young people who participate in programs through 4-H, the nation's largest youth club, are less likely to do drugs, drink alcohol, and smoke cigarettes and are more likely to be civically active than kids who don't participate in its programs, according to a study by researchers at Tufts University.
Originally formed as an agricultural organization, 4-H still battles the perception that it's mainly focused on farming. But the organization has many chapters in urban areas and now teaches young people public speaking, provides STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, and encourages community involvement.
Richard Lerner, head of the Tufts study, says that 4-H has changed with the times. "Although it started for rural youth, the fact of the matter is there's not that many rural youth left," he says. "4-H has become an urban and suburban program."
The organization reaches nearly 7 million young people, about double that of the next-largest youth organization, Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The study, "Waves of the Future," tracked fifth graders through their high school graduation, surveying them once per year. Students who participated in 4-H programs were 20 percent less likely to have had sex by 10th grade and two times less likely to smoke or drink alcohol.
Lerner says 4-H hits on the three components of a successful youth program: It offers mentoring, skill building, and leadership opportunities for students. "There is a positive and sustained relationship between an adult and young person," he says. "It's important that the adult is not only committed and reliably there, but that they also have some skills."
The ability of an adult to pass on those life skills is key. Whether a student is learning urban gardening or public speaking, being able to apply these skills to real-life situations can keep students busy—and away from making bad decisions, Lerner says.
"Giving young people a chance to use those skills validates what they've been learning," he adds.