ON AN OUTING designed to give city kids a taste of the great outdoors, 11 Arlington County youngsters spent a recent sunny Sunday swimming, boating, hiking and picnicking at rural Lake Anna near Fredericksburg, Va.

Although a typical weekend event for many children, the excursion proved eye-opening for these 4-H members who had never seen cattails growing along a shore and had rarely gone swimming anyplace but a city pool.

The lake trip is just one example of the activities open to 4-Hers, many of whom belong to the national youth organization's new breed of members from urban and suburban environments. Now outnumbering traditional rural 4-H clubs that raise livestock and cultivate farm crops are groups that focus on urban interests such as computers, bike rodeos and inner-city gardens.

"There aren't many cows in Arlington," says Tobin Smith, president of the Arlington County 4-H Leader Council.

During the recent Arlington County Fair, a sheep-shearing demonstration in the 4-H tent was as countrified as the organization's activities got. Instead of showing livestock, 4-Hers participated in a talent show that included acts as varied as a minuet performed on saxophone and a talk on how to care for a pet tarantula.

Trying to adapt to the county's urban nature, the 4-H Leader Council is establishing activities for "youths at risk," Smith says. He also wants the county program to expand to enable members to enter club projects in district- and state-level 4-H competitions.

"The thing that I like about 4-H -- and I'm a longtime 4-H member -- is that it's so flexible you can virtually do anything with it," Smith says.

Smith's 4-H Fishing Club, one of nine community clubs in the county, is helping Trout Unlimited stock and clean up Four Mile Run, a local creek. Members learn to identify and catch different species of fish, and study conservation and environmental protection.

Many Arlington County 4-Hers are Asian and Hispanic youths who meet regularly at the Woodbury Park and Park Warren bilingual centers to create arts and crafts projects, learn sewing techniques, play games or go on field trips to places such as the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

Some local 4-H clubs -- such as a horse club in Fairfax County and a dairy-goat club in Montgomery County -- meet regularly on weekends, while others hold occasional Saturday or Sunday outings in addition to their after-school or weeknight get-togethers. Four-H also sponsors many special interest activities -- many of which are open to non-4-Hers -- such as dog-training projects, summer camps, teen retreats and therapeutic horseback riding for disabled participants.

In both urban and rural settings, 4-H programs emphasize "learning by doing," and encourage whole families to become involved. Young people ages 9 through 19 can join general-interest community clubs or clubs that educate members on specific topics through hands-on projects. Children ages 5 through 8 can participate in pre-4-H Cloverbud groups.

"{Four-H} is an opportunity for families to really be together and to work together" in a positive way, says Pat Stabler, a volunteer leader and mother of two teens who are active in the Montgomery County program.

Volunteering as a club leader offers a chance to help youngsters learn responsibility, "whether you're teaching them sewing or whether you're teaching them about an animal project," she says.

Four-H sprouted from activity clubs for rural American children in the early 1900s. In 1914, it became the youth educational program of the Cooperative Extension Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant universities. The 4-H logo, a green four-leaf clover with an "H" in each leaflet, symbolizes "good luck and achievement." The 4-H pledge explains the group's name and sums up the members' objectives:

"I pledge: My Head to clearer thinking, My Heart to greater loyalty, My Hands to larger service, and My Health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world."

JOIN THE CLUB

Four-H clubs, open to boys and girls, reorganize and welcome new members during September. There is no cost for joining, and membership requirements are minimal. Information is available through these local 4-H offices:

ALEXANDRIA -- The city has eight project clubs -- covering such topics as dance, magic and photography -- and four teen clubs, in addition to about 40 after-school special-interest programs. Weekend trips to the 4-H camp in Front Royal take place about once a month during the school year. Call 4-H agent Mary Johnson at 838-0960.

ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY -- Four horse clubs, one livestock club and one after-school club for latchkey children are among the county's 20 4-H groups. Call agents Jim Kahler or Sandra Mason or 4-H representative Sunny McCauley at 301/222-6755 or 261-1703, ext. 6755.

ARLINGTON COUNTY -- The county has nine community clubs, and is planning to start a Cloverbud group this fall. Call 4-H agent Maureen Hosty or program coordinator Jude McLaughlin at 358-6400.

CHARLES COUNTY -- The county's 31 clubs are mostly multi-interest community clubs. Among non-club programs, many of which occur on weekends, are Food and Nutrition Day, dog obedience classes and public-speaking workshops. Call 4-H agent Faith Connors or 4-H program assistants Betty Ann Hyssong or Donna Bailey at 301/645-3904.

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA -- The District has 111 4-H clubs, most of which are school-based. One special-interest activity is a project to help teen athletes pass their SAT exams. Contact state 4-H program leader Reginald Taylor at 576-6951, or the city's five 4-H agents at the 4-H office at 282-7410 or 282-3068.

FAIRFAX COUNTY -- Fairfax County kids can choose from nine community clubs, seven project clubs, four school clubs and seven Cloverbud groups. Short-term special-interest programs cover such topics as therapeutic riding, guide-dog puppy raising and public speaking. Contact agents Ann Marlow and Judy Haisler at 246-5301.

FREDERICK COUNTY -- The county's 53 clubs include five county-wide specialty groups. Non-club programs include a mini-college with a variety of classes open to the public, a bicycle rodeo and Champion Chow, a cooking school. Members take part in the Great Frederick Fair, Monday through Sept. 22. Call agents Larry Cromwell and Dan Braucher or Faculty Extension assistant Janice Kramer at 301/694-1589.

HOWARD COUNTY -- The county has 24 project clubs, including a teen group; two additonal clubs are available for Cloverbuds. Among special activities are survival skill workshops and babysitting certification courses. Contact agents L. Martin Hamilton and Hope Jackson or program assistant Jane Stull at 301/313-2707.

LOUDOUN COUNTY -- The largely rural county's 26 clubs include several project groups as well as six community groups and two Cloverbud clubs. A new club, 4-H Adventure Unlimited, features outdoor activities for teens. Experience Theatre, a program done in cooperation with Positive Youth Works, allows children from low-income families to attend monthly arts performances. Contact agents Truda Roper and Mark Humphrey at 703/777-0373 or 478-1850, ext. 0373.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY -- The county has 42 4-H clubs in addition to special-interest programs on topics such as nutrition education and children's self-care and safety skills. Four-H weekend activities occur at least once a month. Call agents Carolyn Travers, Kendra Wells and Ruth Proctor at 590-9638.

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY -- The county has 51 project clubs, studying such topics as archery, cycling, entomology and woodworking. Call agents Leon Brooks and Viola Mason at 868-9636 or 499-8092.

PRINCE WILLIAM COUNTY -- The county's 13 community clubs include two devoted exclusively to Cloverbuds. Kids also can join three horse clubs and a guide-dog raising program. Contact 4-H agent Debbie Carter at 703/335-6285 or 631-1703, ext. 6285.

NATIONAL 4-H COUNCIL -- Information about national 4-H activities is available by writing the council at 7100 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, MD 20815 or calling 961-2800.

Mary Jane Solomon last wrote for Weekend about Washington carousels.