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The 4-H program began around the start of the 20th century with the work of several people throughout the United States who were concerned about the positive growth of young people.

The seed of the 4-H idea of practical and "hands-on" learning came from the desire to make public school education more connected to country life. Early programs tied both public and private resources together for the purpose of helping rural youth.

During this time, researchers at experiment stations of the land-grant college system and USDA saw that adults in the farming community did not readily accept new agricultural discoveries. However, educators found that youth could "experiment" with these new ideas and then share their experiences and successes with the adults.

As a result, rural youth programs became a way to introduce new agricultural technology to adults. A.B. Graham started one such youth program in Ohio in 1902, considered the birth of the 4-H program in the U.S. When Congress created the Cooperative Extension Service in the USDA in 1914, it included boys' and girls' club work. These soon became known as 4-H clubs - head, heart, hands, and health.

Nearing its 50th anniversary, 4-H began to undergo several changes. In 1948, a group of American youth traveled to Europe, and a group of Europeans came to the United States on the first International Farm Youth Exchange. Since then, thousands of young people have participated in the 4-H out-of-state and international exchange programs.

In the 1950s, 4-H began to extend into urban areas as well. Soon, the focus of 4-H became centered around the personal growth of the member.  Life skills development was built into 4-H projects, activities and events to help youth become contributing, productive, self-directed members of society. The organization changed in the 1960s, combining 4-H groups divided by gender or race into a single integrated program.