Most of us strive for achievement in our daily lives. Achievement or mastery helps youth to discover their interests and strengths and increases their sense of self. One of the great things about 4-H is that it offers youth the opportunity for mastery.  

The county fair is the culmination of the project year for 4-H members. 4-H’ers work all year on their project(s) to have them ready in time for the fair for evaluation. At the county fair, they present their exhibit to a judge who is knowledgeable in the project area. Judges compare each project to a standard and award the exhibit a ribbon placing. In the 4-H division of the fair, every exhibit gets a ribbon based on the quality of the exhibit.

Kansas 4-H uses a version of the Danish Ribbon Grouping System for awards. 

There are four ribbon categories:  Purple, Blue, Red and White. There will be more than one ribbon of each category awarded within a specific division of the 4-H fair. Blue, red and white ribbons do not constitute first, second or third place in this system. 

A purple ribbon is awarded to an excellent quality exhibit. Purple ribbon exhibits have virtually no flaws and are near “perfect”. This is the A+ of exhibits and exceeds quality on all standards. 

A blue ribbon exhibit is also excellent quality; exceeding minimum standards but may have minor details that could be corrected or improved upon. 

Red ribbon exhibits are average. They meet the minimum quality standard. This exhibit is still a quality exhibit, but there are visible signs for improvement. 

White ribbon exhibits fail to meet the minimum project standard.

You will notice that in discussing the ribbon grouping system, I always mention that the exhibit fails to meet minimum standards or the exhibit exceeds minimum standards. It is important to remind our kids that the ribbon is being awarded based on the exhibit, not the youth. Sometimes we get caught up in thinking that the child is being judged, when in reality, it is the exhibit being judged. Sometimes, the exhibit is not a reflection of the child’s hard work. Hours may be put in working toward baking the best bread or caring for livestock, and the project may still receive a ribbon that is below what we as parents or members think the project deserves. Sometimes, a kid puts in hours and hours of hours practicing, preparing and working to show their best exhibit, only to end up cutting open the banana bread to find it is raw in the middle. Does this experience teach a 4-H’er that they didn’t work hard enough? Does it mean they are not a good baker? No. It simply means something happened and the bread didn’t turn out right. The judge will problem solve with the member to help them figure out how they could improve upon their skills. Judges provide alternative ideas and different methods of reaching the end result.

Is the ribbon awarded the most important aspect of the fair? Absolutely not. Just because a youth received a ribbon lower than what we (parents or members) wanted, the member’s sense of self-worth should not be diminished. Receiving a lower ribbon placing is sometimes a valuable teaching tool. It is an opportunity to realize that everyone has a different opinion, and that sometimes, things just don’t turn out the way we want them to. On the day of judging, the judge has been chosen to give their opinion. Take their critique and apply the suggestions for next year. As an old 4-H agent used to say, “It’s free advice. You are free to take it, or free to leave it”. As parents, we have the opportunity to teach our kids that while we may not agree, we can accept criticism with grace. 

The most important lessons learned in the 4-H project experience are not how to achieve the highest ribbon. The lesson isn’t in winning because, although winning is great, the feeling from the win is short-lived. Through project work, skills are learned and lasting memories are created among friends and family as we celebrate our triumphs and our trials working “to make the best better.” The most important end result is not the ribbon on the exhibit. The most important end result is the experience along the way and that we create purple ribbon kids who contribute positively to their club, community, country and world.

Visit us at the fair! If you see a 4-H’er, ask them about their projects. They are happy to share. To learn more about the different opportunities the 4-H program offers youth in Cowley County, visit or contact the Cowley County Extension Office at (620) 221-5450 or (620) 441-4565.

Kelsey Nordyke is the 4-H Youth Development Agent at K-State Research and Extension, Cowley County. She can be reached at (620) 221-5450 or (620) 441-4565.

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