As a teacher, Elena Aguilar often looked for opportunities to get her students out of the classroom and into different neighborhoods or natural environments. “We did the usual museum trips and science center stuff, but I loved the trips which pushed them into unfamiliar territory,” writes Aguilar, an instructional coach and author. Nudging kids out of their comfort zones, she says, “taught them about others as well as themselves. It helped them see the expansiveness of our world and perhaps inspired them to think about what might be available to them out there.”
Aguilar’s thinking made an impact: 15 years after traveling with her third-grade class to Yosemite National Park, a student contacted Aguilar on Facebook to thank her for the life-changing excursion. “You changed our lives with that trip,” the student wrote. “It's what made me want to be a teacher, to be able to give that same gift to other kids.”
As schools grapple with pandemic-related concerns about balancing in-seat instructional time with non-essentials like trips, new research published in The Journal of Human Resources argues that field trips, and the vital educational experiences that they provide—whether it’s a visit to a local museum or a big commitment like Aguilar’s national park trip—deliver a host of positive social and academic outcomes and are worth the effort.
“The pandemic should not keep schools from providing these essential cultural experiences forever,” asserts Jay P. Greene, one of the study’s co-authors and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in an opinion piece for the Daily News. “If schools make culturally-enriching field trips an integral part of the education experience, all students—especially those whose parents have a harder time accessing these experiences on their own—would benefit.”
In the study, researchers assigned more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students in Atlanta to two groups. One group participated in three to six “culturally-enriching” field trips—visits to an art museum, a live theater performance, and a symphony concert—while students in the control group stayed put in class. The outcome? Kids in the field trip group “scored higher on end-of-grade exams, received higher course grades, were absent less often, and had fewer behavioral infractions,” compared to students in the control group, according to a ScienceDaily brief. Benefits lasted two to three years, Greene writes, and were “most visible when students were in middle school.”
“We are able to demonstrate that a relatively simple intervention—and we consider it pretty low-touch; three field trips in a year, maybe six field trips in two years—can actually have some substantial impacts,” says lead study author Heidi Holmes Erickson in an interview with The 74. “They’re not just limited to social benefits. It shows that smaller interventions can actually have some significant effects on academics as well.”
Field trips aren’t a threat to in-class instruction, Erickson notes, they’re a tool to help bolster engagement and expand students’ horizons. “It's possible to expose students to a broader world and have a culturally enriching curriculum without sacrificing academic outcomes, and it may actually improve academic outcomes,” Erickson says. Far from harming test scores, the researchers found that culturally rich excursions reinforce academics and “students who participated in these field trips were doing better in class.”
Meanwhile, class trips don't need to be elaborate productions to make an impact: small excursions outside the classroom—"low-touch," as the researchers call them—can pack a punch. Here’s how three educators recommend dialing it back with low-stakes options that are both engaging and stimulating for students, but might not require days to prepare and plan:
Make Them Bite-Sized: Instead of allocating an entire day to a field trip, educational consultant Laurel Schwartz takes her classes on micro field trips, or “short outings that can be completed in a single class period.” These real-world encounters, she says, are especially beneficial for English learners and world language students. A micro field trip to a nearby park or around school grounds, for example, can be a great opportunity to “enhance a unit on nature and wildlife while reinforcing vocabulary for senses, colors, and the concepts of quantity and size,” Schwartz writes. “Afterwards, students might write descriptive stories set in the place you visited using vocabulary collected and defined together by the class.”
Try Teacher-Less Trips: To encourage exploration and learning outside of the classroom, former social studies teacher Arch Grieve removes himself from the equation with teacher-less field trips rooted in students’ local communities. Grieve only suggests options that are directly tied to a unit being discussed in class—like attending a talk at a local university or visiting a museum or cultural festival—and offers extra credit to incentivize students. “These trips allow for a greater appreciation of my subject matter than is possible in the school setting, and perhaps best of all, there's little to no planning involved.”
Explore Virtual Options: It may not be as fun as visiting in person, but the Internet makes it possible to visit museums like The National Gallery of London and The Vatican Museums without leaving the school building. Middle school English teacher Laura Bradley likes to search the Museums for Digital Learning website by topic, keyword, and grade level, to find lessons and activities that meet her unique curricular needs. The site grants access to digitized museum collections, 3D models, audio files, documents, images, and videos.