The start of school brings an excitement to the Fishers Parks office. Since 2014, Chief Naturalist Danesa Stolz gets ready to go back to school each fall. But it’s not in the traditional sense; Stolz leads the one of a kind Nature First program, an award-winning, innovative nature education program in partnership with Hamilton Southeastern Schools.
The Nature First program allows every first grader in the HSE school district to visit, explore, and learn about Ritchey Woods Nature Preserve (10410 Hague Road) and the environment through a combination of curriculum-based activities and hands-on exploration.
A total of 75 classes from 12 elementary schools visit Ritchey Woods in both the spring and fall to experience the changing of seasons while also learning about nature and environmental stewardship. Stolz also visits each class two times during the school year for lessons in the classroom that are directly tied to state standards and curriculum requirements like science, social studies, language arts, and math.
Along with educational curriculum, the Nature First program offers children the chance to explore and learn about nature in new ways.
“The lack of exposure children have to nature is alarming and the consequences are dire. Time and time again, it seems like today’s youth have less time in nature than any generation before,” said Stolz.
Nature First was born from this troublesome trend. Stolz often pondered, “How can we create a program that exposes as many children as possible to nature? And then it came to me- partner with the schools! I presented the idea to HSE Superintendent Dr. Bourff, and he reached out to me the very next day and said they were all in.”
Through this partnership with HSE Schools, Nature First is inspiring children to explore nature while also helping to develop key social and intellectual skills. Direct experience in nature is important to a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development, and multiple studies have found endless benefits to environmental education programs, including increases in cooperation and conflict resolution skills, self-esteem, problem solving, motivation to learn, and improved classroom behavior.
Through these benefits and unique experiences, Nature First offers a one of a kind experiential learning program that impacts Fishers’ youngest residents and the community in a meaningful way.
“My favorite part about the program is that it’s become a Fishers tradition of sorts,” shared Stolz. “Over time, I see every student in the school system, and as the years go by I get to continue to share with them the lasting legacy of Ritchey Woods and environmental stewardship.”