Having a summer adventure during a global pandemic seems unlikely, but for Christine Wood that’s exactly what she hopes to give 4-H students this summer, albeit in a virtual way.

Wood is the 4-H science technology engineering and math field specialist with SDSU Extension and helped coordinate the South Dakota Summer Adventures series that will take place between June 1 and Aug 14.

While a normal 4-H summer program would involve many outdoor activities, hands-on learning experiences, and many more traditional summer adventures, Wood said this year was all about rounding out skills for all youth, not just 4-H youth.

“We knew that it wasn’t going to be normal and we needed to be able to provide opportunities for our youth,” Wood said.

The 11-week Summer Adventure Series focused on what students could do at home. Lessons such as ExploCHEF use food found in most homes so that parents don’t have to go out to buy each item.

“We needed to create something to reach them wherever they happen to be,” Wood said. “It’s a challenge to take an activity that you’d do hands-on and move that to a virtual setting.”

The summer series features gardening, sports and animal-focused events. It is open for anybody to register as a group or individually. This year, South Dakota 4-H was able to partner with a large number of after school programs across the state so that groups of students can participate together.

Fish catch

Pria Martinell, 8, reels in a bluegill at Family Park in western Sioux Falls June 1 while her brother, Grayson, 5, and dad Chuck Martinell look on. Chuck Martinell is 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Minnehaha County, and the family is participating in the 4-H Summer Adventure Series.

Minnehaha County 4-H Youth Program Advisor Chuck Martinell will be leading classes on gardening, sports and outdoor activities such as bicycling and fishing. While he’s used to getting his hands dirty and planting community gardens this time of year, he’s shifted to the virtual realm, having led handful of online presentations since social distancing restrictions were put into place.

It’s challenging to interact with kids through online meetings, he’s found, but video conferencing sits have improved and he said he’s glad the summer program is reaching more children across the state.

His own three kids are participating. Alexa, 10, Pria, 8, and Grayson, 5, are joining, in addition to preparing their usual 4-H project for the fair. The girls compete in special foods and they’ve created string art, flower pots and a journal.

The 4-H Summer Adventure Series isn’t just for traditional 4-H students, said Dr. Timothy Tanner, the state’s new 4-H program director who started last October. Because of the wide range of activities and easy access, he hopes many youth participate who wouldn’t have normally.

While many kids are missing out on traditional summers and maybe even summer jobs, Tanner said 4-H can be that creative outlet.

“4-H can kind of stand out a little bit to provide meaningful activities,” he said.

Registration can be done on a week-to-week basis should you choose, Tanner said and can be done by reaching out to Wood at her email Christine.wood@sdstate.edu or visiting the 4-H website at https://extension.sdstate.edu/event/south-dakota-summer-adventures-virtual-program.

Different job in a very different year

Creating a program that would fit travel and social distancing restrictions is one challenge, having to plan on the fly during the first summer on the job is another for Dr. Tanner, who came to SDSU from Ohio State University last fall. Tanner was the “No. 2” guy for Ohio’s 4-H program for many years.

He came to South Dakota to create new youth programs. Little did he know, just five months later his plans were swept away as a global pandemic shook the globe.

While Tanner joked that the last two months have been like “10 years in dog years,” he applauded his staff for working during through coronavirus to put on a full slate of youth activities.

“It’s been a good start with good people here,” he said.

The difficult part for Tanner, he said, has been going against his and his staff’s nature to plan well in advance. It’s difficult waiting for formal direction from state and federal leaders when trying to plan, he said.

The pandemic has broadened the potential reach of 4-H – something Tanner didn’t picture when he first came on the job. He’s hopeful it will lead to more opportunities in the future.

“We know we’re not going to be perfect with virtual learning and other things, but we may find ways to be more efficient in our work,” he said.

Program teaches core skills

As the summer kicks off, there is a slight glimmer of hope that 4-H may be able to hold in-person events in August. But Tanner said they’re trying not to get too excited over the possibility before they have more information.

Fishing family

The Martinell family fishes from the dock at Family Park in Sioux Falls. They are Amy, Garyson, Alexa, Pria and Chuck, who is 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Minnehaha County. 

For Wood, working with youth virtually has been educational for her and her colleagues, but she has seen the novelty of it all wear off as time goes on. The 4-H summer series was designed to combat shorter attention spans by asking the students to participate in challenges away from the computer instead of in front of it.

“(It may be to) go find the longest worm in your yard and share a picture,” she said.

Contests like that will be judged by 4-H staff and partners. There will be three contests a week, and kids can earn rewards throughout the program.

When it’s all said and done, Wood hopes that those who participated can build upon 4-H’s core values and become more resilient in an ever-changing world.

Depending on the success of the program, Wood said 4-H may consider offering more virtual options on a smaller scale than this year’s effort. It could help reach audiences they don’t normally reach, she said.

Dr. Tanner said that he understands how difficult it is for kids to not be with friends and extended family, but he hopes they can use this moment to teach resilience and organization. They’re beneficial skills for students and his staff as well.

“Even though we want to be and will be a hands-on organization, that doesn’t mean we can’t do a better job of producing high-quality videos in future years,” he said.

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.