Outdoor Learning Area

Credit: Lori Potter, Kearney Hub

Outdoor Learning Area

The Grand Island Groundwater Guardian’s Outdoor Learning Area located at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds in Grand Island, Nebraska, is designed to provide an attractive greenscape area while also providing educational opportunities regarding one of our most precious resources — groundwater.  The area is open to the public year-round.  It’s a great place for field trips by providing a stimulating place for play, learning, and environmental education– particularly water education. Local educators have used the area to educate students about butterfly migration, GPS technology, and native plants.  The Outdoor Learning Area is available year-round to allow educators and the public an educational, leisurely place to enjoy nature.

Monitoring Well Added to Outdoor Learning Area
An educational monitoring well was added to the Outdoor Learning Area east of the Raising Nebraska Building at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds on October 3rd. The well was dug and dedicated Tuesday during a gathering of the Nebraska Well Drillers Association. Downey Drilling of Lexington built the well, which is 55 feet deep. The Outdoor Learning Area was developed by the Grand Island Groundwater Guardian Team and is maintained by the Team and the Central Platte Natural Resources District. The organizations have been developing the quarter-acre site since 2012. The monitoring well will be used to educate the public and young people about groundwater.

“Our board plans to install a monitoring system on this well to allow the public statewide to find out what the groundwater levels are year-round at this site,” Mick Reynolds said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Reynolds, who lives between Wood River and Shelton, is chairman of the Central Platte NRD board.

Ribbon Cutting Dedication on October 3, 2023. Participants from the Groundwater Guardian Team, Central Platte NRD, Nebraska Well Drillers, Downey Drilling, Chamber of Commerce & Nebraska Association of Resources Districts. From left front: Tricia Dudley, Kelly Cole, Marcia Lee, Tom Downey, Lee Orton, Julie Frandsen, Patsy Steenson, Dustin Wilcox. Back: Dan Clement, Cindy Johnson, Courtney Widup, Brandi Flyr, Lyndon Vogt, Shane Max, Brody Vorderstrasse, Nelson Winkel, Mick Reynolds.



A shout out to Barr Middle School's National Junior Honor Society for sprucing up the Outdoor Learning Area @ the Nebraska State Fair in October. These future leaders collected grass seed, mulched, removed unwanted grasses, planted seeds & picked up signs and stepping stones for the winter.


History Of The Outdoor Learning Area

IMPLEMENTATION  The Grand Island Groundwater Guardian Team realized the potential of educating thousands of people about groundwater and its uses when we received 1st place through a national online contest held by Rain Bird: The Intelligent Use of Water Awards! That first place prize was $10,000 to implement features such as a rain garden, bioswale, gazebo, cedar tunnel, prairie maze, and trees. The project received 30,597 votes; about 1,000 more than any other project in the country.

AWARD  The Grand Island Groundwater Guardian Team received a Community Beautification Award from the Hall County Regional Planning Commission in October 2016.  The award recognizes the Outdoor Learning Area as a place to beautify and improve the community.

GROUNDBREAKING  A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Friday, August 31, 2012. Jack Vetter, Vetter Health Systems, was a guest at the groundbreaking ceremony. Vetter matched the online contest that the Guardians won from Rain Bird: The Intelligent Use of Water Awards.

FUNDING  After receiving the initial $10,000 from the online voting, the Guardians also acquired $47,500 in other grants from Vetter Health Services, Water For The West, Waterwise (NE Environmental Trust), Fonner Park, City of Grand Island and Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.  The project would not have been possible without the support of Fonner Park, the Nebraska State Fair. The Grand Island Youth Leadership and Roots & Shoots have donated plants and their time to enhance the site.

GWG TEAM  The Grand Island Groundwater Guardian Team is a local volunteer group whose purpose is to educate the public about the importance of groundwater.  Members:  Roger Andrews, retired-Bureau of Reclamation; Larry Cast, retired-Bureau of Reclamation; Duane Woodward, retired hydrologist-Central Platte NRD; Julie Frandsen,  Grand Island Utilities Dept; Elizabeth Killinger, UNL Extension Educator; Mike Kube, retired-Bureau of Reclamation; Ken Gnadt, former Mayor of City of Grand Island; Marcia Lee, Central Platte Natural Resources District; Gary Mader, retired-Grand Island Utilities Department;  Denise McGovern-Gallagher, Grand Island Area Clean Community System; Milt Moravek, Retired-Central Platte Natural Resources District; Patsy Steenson- Retired Elementary Educator.   OLA Project Director: Gary Mader

For information on activities available at the Outdoor Learning Area, or information on getting involved in the Groundwater Guardian project contact:  Marcia Lee or Elizabeth Killinger

Become a Groundwater Guardian!

Would you like to be a member of the Groundwater Guardian Team?

We're actively looking for new members ideas on youth and public educational activities to understand the importance of groundwater in our daily lives. If you like working outside, we're also looking for assistance at the Outdoor Learning Area (OLA), located at the Nebraska State Fairgrounds.

* The Team meets two times a year in Grand Island to discuss upcoming plans and events.
* 2-3 workdays throughout the year to maintain the Outdoor Learning Area.
* Education activities at the Nebraska Children's Groundwater Festival, activities for local schools & community events

The Grand Island Groundwater Guardian Team is a 501(c)3 local nonprofit group that provides groundwater education to area youth, participates in community events, and updates and maintains the Outdoor Learning Area for the public. If you would like to donate to allow the Groundwater Guardians continue to offer these activities, contact the Grand Island Community Foundation at 308-381-7767. EIN#: 47-6032570


  • To educate the public about water quantity, water quality and stewardship of water resources.
  • To educate the public on various types of vegetation and water uses across the state of Nebraska.
  • To educate the public on natural filtration techniques.
  • To educate the public on efficient water use.
  • To educate the public about the Ogallala Aquifer.

Why? Increasing numbers of both children and adults are losing contact with the natural world. Reasons include the rapid growth of domestic air-conditioning since the 1950s; apprehensive parents who keep their children close to home; state-mandated curricula that do not allow time for study outdoors; and the overly-structured, hurried lifestyle of many people today.


Rain Garden: The rain garden is a planted depression that allows rainwater runoff to be absorbed from impervious urban areas like roofs, driveways, walkways, parking lots, and compacted lawn areas. The public would be educated on how this reduces rain runoff by allowing stormwater to soak into the ground, as opposed to flowing into storm drains and surface waters which causes erosion, water pollution, flooding, and diminished groundwater. It will be designed for Nebraska-specific soils and climate. Native plants from all areas of Nebraska have been used because they don’t require fertilizer and are more tolerant of the local climate, soil, and water conditions. They also attract local wildlife such as native birds and butterflies. The plants include a selection of wetland edge vegetation, such as wildflowers, sedges, rushes, ferns, shrubs and small trees— will take up excess water flowing into the rain garden. Water filters through soil layers before entering the groundwater system. The site shows how the root systems enhance infiltration, maintain or even augment soil permeability, provide moisture redistribution, and sustain diverse microbial populations involved in biofiltration. Also, through the process of transpiration, rain garden plants return water vapor to the atmosphere.

Bioswale: This landscape element is designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. The location is near a swaled drainage area (a sidewalk) and includes gently sloped sides filled with vegetation, compost, and riprap. The water’s flow path, along with the wide and shallow ditch, is designed to maximize the time water spends in the swale, which aids the trapping of pollutants and silt.

Gazebo: The gazebo provides seating for a classroom setting and resting area.  The structure includes gutters and a rain barrel to educate about gutters, rain barrels, and grass pavers.

Kids Tunnel: This natural play feature was installed in July 2013 and uses flowering vines to cover the structure, creating a space for children to play and learn about plants, vines, and shade.

Bee Hotel:  The bee hotel provides essential nesting homes for solitary bees. These bees don't swarm or have a hive like the more well-known honeybees and wasps. Solitary bees are excellent pollinators. They pollinate our crops and ensure that plant communities are healthy and productive.

Prairie Restoration: This area was planted by the Prairie Plains Resources Institute. The prairie path combines the natural play feature with a need to cover a low area on the site with something other than turf. The prairie grass and forb roots help add structure to the soil and improve water infiltration over time. Simply mowing a path through the area allows the public to experience running through tall prairie grasses. The restoration process will take years to complete.


Areas Near The Outdoor Learning Area

4-H Building: During the State Fair, the 4-H building has several events. The remainder of the year, the building is utilized as a sports field house with baseball & softball cages, basketball courts, volleyball courts, soccer fields, and kids play area.

Raising Nebraska Building: This 50,000 square-foot building is just west of the outdoor learning area. It is two stories high with exhibition space on the ground floor and the Nebraska State Fair administrative offices on the second floor. It also features a museum area with information and artifacts from the past 144 years of the fair. The Department of Agriculture and the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission share the lower floor with meeting space available on the top floor. The Dept. of Agriculture’s interactive, technology-based displays promote agriculture in Nebraska and is available for use year-round. The display has been described as a Smithsonian-type display with simulators and videos.

Family Fun Center: During the State Fair, the Family Fun Activity Center is located under a large tent in the Family Fun Activity Center and provides all-day games, sanctioned games & competitions, a daily food eating contest, Make-and-Take activities, and much more for children of all ages. Butterfly adventures, which is an educational environment where people can interact with butterflies of many different species will be held daily in the Family Fun Zone, as well as The Pirates of the Colombian Caribbean Aerial High Wire Thrill Show, which is a daily grounds entertainment act with multiple showings a day.