On the crowded, bustling lawn of Lee Richardson Zoo's Party for the Planet Earth Day celebration, kids dashed past volunteers pretending to be predators after the young prey.

Zoo volunteer Donna Gerstner said some groups would pretend to be Monarch butterflies, bursting from white sheet “cocoons” and running to flowers. Others were box turtles, crouching down as if receding into shells when a predator got too close.

They were two examples of many exhibitors and games on the zoo's grounds teaching nearly 1,000 elementary school students and teachers from Garden City, Holcomb, Lakin, Deerfield and Sublette how to change their habits to preserve the planet and, as the international Earth Day theme directed, protect the globe’s species.

“They share what they learned that day. You see what different stations they visited and, for that child, what most impacted them. So, every kid has their own story for what they take away from today,” said Catie Policastro, conservation education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.

Booths, games, crafts

Groups of students wound past 18 exhibitor booths, five games and crafts and a host of indoor discovery tables and programs. They crowded around a craft table to make elephant and giraffe headbands or practiced yoga with Garden City’s Roots Juice Co. Others hid under a giant parachute or gathered around a trailer covered with three enormous bricks of crushed, plastic, cardboard and aluminum.

At the Garden City High School’s Green Club’s booth, kids ran from a pile of mixed-up recyclables to bins for paper, plastic and aluminum, sorting as they went in a relay. The point, said Green Club members Taylor Sullivan and Grace Reagle, is to show kids how easy it is to recycle. At the high school, their club pushed for paper and plastic recycling bins in every classroom, making it easier for students to avoid the trash cans, Sullivan said. Maybe the younger kids could be the force for change in their own schools.

Across the lawn, kids learned with Fred Jones, water resource manager at the Garden City Water Department, that between drinking, washing their hands and clothes, taking showers, using the toilet, yard work and leaks, they use about 100 gallons of water a day.

The lessons are especially important in a dry community depending on an aquifer as a limited, primary water source, Jones said, and it may give students a chance to teach conservation practices to their families.

“I think it builds good habits and kind of shows that the whole community is trying to be conservative with their resources,” Jones said.

Throughout the day, students had a chance to learn about the species living and moving not far from the exhibits. Zookeeper Ali Mohn held Keeper Chats throughout the day, introducing students to animals like the flamingos or resident Bald Eagle. Their questions, scientific and curious, even surprised her sometimes. How do the lanky birds protect their eggs, or what would they look like if they didn’t stick to the diet that turns their feathers pink.

“I do think it helps get exposure to different species and just … how what (kids) do in their day-to-day life could affect the wild. I don’t know how much information kids retain, but it’s nice to see them trying,” Mohn said.

The outdoor, hands-on activities sink into kids slowly and effectively, said Gertrude Walker special education teacher Lauren Bendert. Kids spent hours having fun, and then later would repeat back conservation lessons they learned at the event.

“I don’t think they realize they’re learning,” she said.

A huddle of Gertrude Walker fourth-grade girls said they liked the games and the snacks and the zoo itself. But the lessons hit home. Nayeli Ortegon wanted to ask people to help her pick up trash around her apartment complex. America Facio wanted to tell her neighbors about what she learned.

The actions are important, said Hailey Moreno, because they directly affect their world. Trash and pollution could lead to animals’ extinction, she said, and gases could shrink the ozone layer, she said.

“I don’t want to lose that because we might really get hurt if we don’t have an ozone layer,” Moreno said.

A new addition to the fair could ideally take that lesson another step — from exposure to action. At one booth, students could donate spare change to Amphibian Ark, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting frogs, toads, salamanders and their cousins, Policastro said. The goal is for kids to see and feel their impact on the world around them.

“Every day, we have animals representing their species and the different conservation messages related to that. But Earth Day specifically, we really wanted to push how kids can take action and expanding their knowledge about species...” Policastro said.

“What I hope the kids kids take away … would be an inspiration to help wildlife, both home, right in our own backyards here in Garden City, and one day having a bigger impact on more animals.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.