3 tips to help your kids prepare for fair

youth showing a diary cow at the fair
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Fair season is upon us! For 4-H families, this is an important (and sometimes stressful) time. Exhibiting livestock or other projects is an opportunity for young people to showcase their hard work and learning from throughout the year. But more than that, it’s an opportunity for young people to follow their passions, practice life skills, and build relationships. As a 4-H parent, you play an important role! Here are a few ways to help your child get the most out of this opportunity.

Nurture sparks

A big part of the positive youth development (PYD) that happens in 4-H is a young person’s ability to identify and develop the passions that motivate them and allow them to express who they truly are. The Search Institute calls these “sparks.”  The wide array of projects that can be exhibited at 4-H shows allow young people to explore new topics, skills, and areas of interest. This can help lead to discovery of their spark. And once a spark is identified, 4-H shows provide an outlet for youth to share their passions with others by exhibiting a project in a related project area. What’s more, young people who have caring adults that support pursuit of these sparks are more likely to experience positive outcomes, like higher grades and social competence.

As a 4-H parent preparing for fair, you can gently encourage your child to explore new project areas that might lead to new passions. (Illinois 4-H Project Spark Sheets are a great resource for this!) As your child’s spark grows, help them identify related 4-H projects, or ways to incorporate their spark into new project areas. For instance, if sports are a spark for your child, perhaps they would be interested in exhibiting a sports nutrition or health and fitness project? Or they might want to incorporate their love of sports into a career readiness, leadership development or civic engagement project.

When a young person exhibits a project related to their spark at a 4-H show, their passion and motivation naturally shines. The joy their spark brings is evident to judges, peers, and spectators – and everyone has a chance to see the unique gifts they bring to the world!

Model good behavior

It’s probably no surprise to anyone, but the old admonishment to “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t quite work as intended. While children often do listen to your words, they also see and learn from your actions. For this reason, it’s super important to model behaviors that you want your child to learn.

As your family prepares for fair, things like planning ahead, positive work ethic, and good sportsmanship are especially important. A few ways to model these behaviors might include: creating and using to-do lists and budgets for family projects; holding family members accountable for completing their chores; winning and losing family games graciously; and being kind and respectful at sporting events. If you’re already doing this, be sure to give praise when you see others behaving positively as well. For instance, if you see your child’s teammate keep a kind attitude even after a disappointing loss, comment on it. This will help your child see the behavior modeled in someone else and let them know you value that behavior.

Remember the big picture

There are a wide array of attributes that indicate a young person is thriving, like having a growth mindset, a sense of purpose, and an openness to discovery. In 4-H, we try to foster these things. However, winning a superior ribbon at state fair is not among them. While we encourage young people to share their passions and talents with the world, and try to provide opportunities to do so through 4-H shows and exhibit opportunities, these are never the end goal!

4-H shows and fairs can be big, fun, exciting events – so we sometimes forget that these are just one small part of the 4-H journey. More important are the sense of belonging our young people feel in their 4-H clubs and programs, the caring adults who support them as they grow, and the challenges they overcome along the way.

As a 4-H parent, you can help remind your child (and maybe yourself) of the big picture by encouraging work in a project area beyond the final exhibit. Ideally, an exhibit at a 4-H show is just one example of learning that has occurred throughout the course of the year. Now, I know we don’t live in “ideally,” but it’s not too late to start. Try activities in the 4-H project manual that aren’t a part of the exhibit requirements or find other ways to expand your child’s learning in that area. For example, if your child plans to exhibit a cooking project, don’t just make cereal bars. Allow your child to help plan and cook meals, take them grocery shopping, host a cookie baking party with 4-H friends, try new recipes, or take a cooking class. Make it about more than just the fair!


Check out these resources for more information on 4-H, exhibit opportunities, and PYD.



4-H is America’s largest youth development organization and strives to help youth learn skills for living. University of Illinois Extension provides 4-H programs in every county in Illinois. Illinois 4-H aims to impact the lives of 200,000 youth each year through sustained learning clubs and groups and short-term programming. If you would like more information on 4-H and other Illinois Extension programs serving Fulton, Mason, Peoria or Tazewell counties, please visit extension.illinois.edu/fmpt.


Emily Schoenfelder joined the Illinois 4-H team in 2017. Prior to this, she began her work in positive youth development with California 4-H and the YMCA. She specializes in STEM engagement, social-emotional development, and educator professional development.  

She received a Master of Science degree in recreation, park, and tourism administration from Western Illinois University.    

 When she is not writing curriculum or facilitating a training, you may find Emily sitting on the floor of her office, building marshmallow catapults out of popsicle sticks or designing mazes for robots for her next STEM program.  


Connection Corner is a blog that provides timely information, activities, and resources to help you stay connected to loved ones, the world around you, and yourself.