By Cody Willoughby — The Miami County Park District held its annual Hug the Earth School Festival for the 22nd year this week, beginning Tuesday, May 8. This marks the fifth year that Stillwater Prairie Reserve has hosted the event.

“It started out at Garbry Big Woods, but we moved it to Stillwater because we needed a larger venue,” said Cinda Hanbuch-Pinkerton, education director for the Miami County Park District. “We wanted to create a program that would make sure learning about science and the outdoors is fun and engaging and helpful to kids to become better stewards of the earth.”

During each year’s festival, more than 3,000 Miami County students in grades K-5 come to the reserve between Tuesday and Friday to engage in various educational outdoor activities.

“One of the Miami County Park District’s goals is to promote environmental awareness and stewardship of our natural resources,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “This program is incorporated to enhance the school’s curriculum. The festival is a showcase of what the kids have learned.”

The program, which is carried out throughout each school year, integrates outdoor explorations with art, music, and science activities within the school clasrroom, land labs, and in parks around the county. Park district naturalists come as guests to each school and engage with students through hands-on activities, songs, and costumes.

“Different kids learn things in different ways,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “Some kids who study things like animal habitats may be out there in the woods or the caves, and if they’re a more hands-on learner, they’ll remember best that way. Other kids remember if they learn a song about animal habitats, and that sticks in their head. Some classes make costumes, and kids remember that through the focus on the arts.

The hands-on field trip to Stillwater serves as a culmination of the year’s learning, and features various stations throughout the reserve, which include gem screening, rock and fossil dig, earthball, rock and tree climbing, and ziplining. Representatives from the Columbus Zoo were also on site to offer a presentation of unique and exotic animals.

“All the schools in the county are just wonderful, and they’re all very excited about the program,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “There’s a lot of coordinating to do with all the thousands of kids, but we’ve done it for a while now, and we’ve gotten pretty efficient at it.”

Before the day’s end, all students were treated to a performance by the Banana Slug String Band, whose educational songs are taught to students throughout the school year.

“We saw the effect very quickly that their music had on kids,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said, on first learning of the Banana Slug String Band. “Kids remember things from those songs we’re trying to help them learn. We’ve even had high school teachers tell us some high school students will be taking tests, and will start humming or singing the Banana Slug songs they learned in elementary school to answer questions on the tests. Music is powerful, and the Banana Slugs are masters at making it fun and memorable.”

The festival will conclude with a Hug the Earth Family Festival, scheduled for Saturday, May 12, from 12-5 p.m.

“Next year, we’ll be having a brand-new Hug the Earth program called ‘Habitat Heroes’,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “It’s all about what people can do to help pollinators and protect their habitats. There’s an issue with pollinators around the world right now. We’re continuing to think of new issues to be addressed and how to make that a great learning experience.”

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