Iowa Children’s Water Festival Teaches Fifth-Graders About Water at an Opportune Age

The Iowa Children’s Water Festival teaches fifth-graders about water’s importance at an age when what they learn stays with them.

Iowa Children’s Water Festival Teaches Fifth-Graders About Water at an Opportune Age

Students use microscopes to examine a water sample for microbial critters.

There’s a lesson about water pollution to be found in a plastic cup filled with gummy bears, chocolate sauce and other assorted sweets.

Every year in mid-May, fifth-graders throughout Iowa learn about the importance of clean water and conservation at the Iowa Children’s Water Festival, held at the Des Moines Area Community College campus in Ankeny.

“It’s teaching them at a young age the importance of saving our water and not throwing trash on the side of the road,” says Linda Kinman, executive director of the Iowa Association of Water Agencies and volunteer coordinator for the festival. “We reach more than 2,000 fifth-graders in one day.”

Sweet lesson

The students take part in various activities focused on water conservation, surface waters, point and nonpoint source pollution, watersheds, wetlands, and the water cycle. The 2018 festival highlight was the “edible aquifer,” in which volunteers helped students carefully layer sweets as a way to demonstrate water pollution.

“It teaches the children the importance of water, ways it can be polluted, and ways to prevent pollution at home,” Kinman says. In a plastic cup, a bottom layer of gummy candy represents rocks. Ice cream on top represents topsoil. Chocolate sprinkles are oil and gas pollutants, and colorful sprinkles represent pollutants such as animal droppings, fertilizers and pesticides. Add a bit of rain (soda) and kids see pollution in action.

“After it rains, the students can see how the pollutants can get to the bottom, where the clean water is,” Kinman says. A drinking straw in the concoction illustrates the effects of drilling into the ground and how pollutants can mix with the soil and the aquifer. “Water is a nonrenewable resource,” Kinman says. “Children are our future. If they want clean drinking water, it’s their responsibility.”

Making a “splash”

The free festival exposes kids to interactive presentations, experiments, exhibits, games and stage shows. They also learn about water-related careers and volunteer opportunities. Fifth grade is the ideal time to reach kids because that’s when they start forming their worldview, Kinman says: “At that age, they can understand the concepts behind where their water comes from and why it’s important to conserve it.”

For more than 20 years, the festival has drawn students from across the state. The goal is for kids to leave knowing the importance of protecting Iowa’s water and ready to put what they learned into practice.  

“The students engage in events like Recycle Relays, environmental bingo and other hands-on games,” Kinman says. “They have full access to our exhibit hall with dozens of interactive exhibits. We cycle the students through three classroom activities and then a large-group ‘splash’ event that drives the messages home.”

That event often includes Randy Pleima, general manager of the Mahaska Rural Water System. In the role of Professor Faucet, he has taught thousands of kids the importance of safe water for drinking and for a healthy life. “He comes with new games and trivia questions for every event,” Kinman says. “He really owns that role, and every year, the kids love him.”

Multiple volunteers

Presenters also include staffers from city departments including Des Moines Water Works, Des Moines Area Community College, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities, the Iowa Rural Water Association and West Des Moines Water Works.

Employees from local industries are among the roughly 200 volunteers who staff the festival; recruiting isn’t difficult. “Once we get volunteers here, they typically want to come back year after year,” Kinman says. “I think we all love seeing these lessons click with students.”

Another idea of the festival is that water conservation is important everywhere. “We tend to be a bit sheltered in Iowa, but if we were living in California, water issues would be a part of our everyday lives,” Kinman says. “Regardless of where you live, it’s important to know that your actions can have a direct affect on water quality. Water utilities are a silent voice. To get the word out about the importance of water, we need to tell our stories. This festival is one way we’re doing that.”



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