On Creating a Place to Thrive

Not sunflowers trying to thrive in the Ohio autumn heat.

On Creating a Place to Thrive

As I write this I am at the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents (NAE4-HA) conference in Columbus, Ohio. The day outside is hot and humid, very different from the cool rainy weather that I left last Friday in Oregon. Right before I left I was tending my garden, getting it ready for winter, and I was struck by the beauty of the now-drooping sunflowers I worked so hard to grow. You see, I have squirrels who like to dig up and eat any sunflower seeds I put in the ground! After a few years of lackluster sunflower growing, I got smarter. I now start the seeds inside in little pots, and only put them in the garden when they are no longer food for little creatures. And now I can now reliably count on a garden full of beautiful sunflowers late each summer.

In my last post I talked about outcomes (I know… sorry, here is that word again), and how we get to them reliably by planning and understanding the process through which they will be achieved. I shared how achieving the outcomes we want for youth participating in 4-H begins way back in the planning stages of our programs. Similar to creating the right conditions for growing sunflowers by starting them inside rather than directly in the garden, we also have to create certain conditions in our programs for growing thriving youth. Those conditions are what make up a nourishing “developmental context.” A bit of a mouthful, I know, but think of it this way: a context is a setting, like my garden, or your 4-H program, and developmental means that it promotes growth, like my sunflowers or thriving youth.

In the same way that I have to tend the conditions in my garden carefully in order to grow healthy sunflowers: soil, water, sunlight, bunny fencing, and anti-squirrel planting strategies, careful attention has to be paid to the conditions of 4-H programs to grow thriving youth. Those conditions include creating a space for youth to explore something in which they are deeply interested (we call this facilitating youth sparks), and ensuring youth feel welcome and that they matter and belong. And perhaps most importantly, that youth are guided by adult volunteers and mentors who show they care, who challenge youth to grow, and who create and sustain youth-adult partnerships.

I no longer bother planting sunflowers seeds directly into the ground as I know doing so will only result in no sunflowers later in the summer. Similarly, it is only through creating high quality developmental contexts in 4-H programs that youth will thrive and achieve important developmental outcomes. Are there any seeds you need to tend differently to ensure better outcomes in your 4-H program?

Thriving on,

Mary Arnold



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I love, love, love your analogies! They help me to better understand the thriving model. Keep it up, I’m sure I’m not the only one who it has helped to better understand it 🙂

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