Ages and Stages

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As we plan activities and programs for youth, it is important to consider the developmental ages and stages of the participants. 4-H leaders must plan activities that meet participants where they are physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Different stages of development have common characteristics in each of these categories. Growth and change in these areas begins at birth and continues into adulthood, but young people typically fall into five categories. These stages often have common characteristics that are important to consider when planning programs and activities.

Stages of Youth Development

Developmental StageSample Characteristics and How to Plan for those Characteristics
Early Childhood
(Ages 5-8)
Youth in this age group are still practicing large and small motor skills. They may not be physically able to complete some tasks, and others will be messy as they have a harder time manipulating materials.
Middle Childhood
(Ages 9-11)
Youth in middle childhood have shorter attention spans and enthusiasm for trying new things. It is important to plan several shorter activities during program time rather than one longer activity.
Young Teens
(Ages 12-14)
Young teens have the skills to plan and evaluate their own work. Encourage these youth to take a larger role in planning activities.
Middle Teens
(Ages 15-17)
Youth at this stage are often interested in the well-being of the greater community. Adult facilitators can help them create opportunities to address some of these needs.
Older Teens/Young Adults
(Ages 18-19)
At this stage, youth are preparing for major life changes. They are thinking about moving out on their own, deciding what to do after they graduate, etc. Provide youth with opportunities to explore different options. Invite them to have conversations with adult sounding boards.

Obviously, young people grow and mature at different ages. A variety of factors may affect the rate at which youth develop: significant events, trauma, familial relationships, physical/mental needs, gender, etc. These age guidelines are a rough estimate of when youth start to show these traits. In fact, youth participants may seem to fall in different categories on different days.

The general characteristics provided in the Ages & Stages document can help you

  1. Create and collect activities that are likely to be successful with groups of youth.
  2. Consider ways to help prepare youth for their next stage of development, or
  3. Evaluate unsuccessful activities with questions such as: Were these experiences appropriate for the participants? What could I do differently next time to make the experience more appropriate?

For a more detailed list of characteristics and planning strategies for each age group, view the Ages and Stages Handout.

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