Playa Festival educates

Alisa Boswell

Eastern New Mexico has more playas than anywhere in the world.

That’s what area fifth-graders are learning as part of the Playa Festivals, which have been held from September to October for the last two years. They are also learning that the playas, desert basins that fill with rain water or spring water to form temporary lakes, are vital to ecosystems in the Southern High Plains.

There are more than 1,000 playas in Roosevelt (535) and Curry (524) counties, covering more than 14,000 acres, according to Darryl Birkenfeld, executive director of Ogallala Commons, a nonprofit community development network.

Birkenfeld was among the educators who visited Lindsey-Steiner Elementary on Monday afternoon as part of the Playa Festivals.

“I was concerned that kids in elementary school are going to phase out the water challenge in the future because they have little hands-on knowledge,” Birkenfeld said. “I wanted to take language art, science and other things they’ve learned and apply it to the land.”

Birkenfeld said the purpose is to educate fifth-grade children with how playas and wildlife function.

“People should know what their water cycle looks like where they live. We don’t have rivers or springs but we have the most playas in the world,” Birkenfeld said. “Not only is this so they (children) can face the water challenges in the future, but they will have to come up with new and very different solutions in the future.”

The three-day program is designed to fit the school day with students learning about playa ecology and the water cycle through science, history, biology, art and creative writing.

“Through hands-on activities and outdoor learning, we educate fifth graders, their teachers, and communities about the water cycle, the Ogallala Aquifer, wastewater management and looming global challenges focusing on our region’s unique playa basins,” reads the festival blog website. “Playas also provide the main recharge to the Ogallala Aquifer and are vital to local ecosystems and economics.”

The Playa Festival program has also been taught at Clovis, Farwell, Floyd and Dora school districts.

“This covers New Mexico science standards. That’s really important,” said Lindsey-Steiner fifth-grade science teacher Danna Smith. “And it’s a really good way for kids to get hands-on science.”

The knowledge shared from the festivals has stuck.

“One of the coolest things I learned was in Mrs. Hazel’s class,” said Lindsey-Steiner fifth-grader Kelby O’Neal. “We learned that inside the dirt, there are eggs and if you put the dirt in water, things will hatch and grow.”

Dora fifth-grader Dakota Newman said his favorite part was learning about ducks and their wings.

“It’s important to show why people shouldn’t destroy wildlife and throw junk in their (wildlife) homes,” Newman said of the importance of the festival.