Professional Learning

The Absolute Awesomeness of Field Trips

July 12, 2011

I am writing this post from the mountains of northern Thailand, ten days into a four-week adventure with my seven-year-old son and husband. This is the first serious travel we've done with our son -- the first time in a country where we don't speak the language, don't have family, and don't understand many of the customs. Pre-child, I was a traveler.

I'd really like to slow down a little and surrender to a day at the pool -- and visit fewer temples and markets. These concessions, however, are unequivocally worth it. It's worth it to see my son experience a very different culture and learn about himself through this carefully planned field trip.

And that's what's loud on my mind these days: field trips! The awesome unique power of field tripping! Being a mother has made the perpetual teacher brain even harder to turn off. I can't stop thinking about how to maximize the learning opportunities everywhere. Prior to our trip, at the end of the school year, my son did a report on Thailand. Then, on the airplane, (I'm embarrassed to admit this) I made my son list everything he wanted to learn about Thailand. Yes, we are making a K-W-L.

And then, after several days of touring Buddhist temples and observing monks, I was spontaneously compelled to make a Venn Diagram and we compared Buddhism to our own religious tradition.

In the Field

Experiencing the Venn Diagram in this setting was absolutely thrilling because what happened was that my son found many more similarities than differences. Beautiful! I'd never seen the Venn Diagram as a tool for building world peace. Sure, we could have done this in a classroom, but to do it here and to learn in this way, I know the impact will be long lasting and have a unique impact.

So maybe we can't take our students across the world, but life-changing field trips can be done within our own cities and states. Last year, Lorena, a student I taught 15 years ago, contacted me through Facebook. She was in her final year of college and plans to be a teacher. She was in the third grade class that I took on a three-day trip to Yosemite National Park in the middle of winter. It was a magical trip and many of my students in Oakland, CA, had never seen snow. Lorena wrote, "You changed our lives with that trip. It's what made me want to be a teacher, to be able to give that same gift to other kids."

As a teacher, I sought all opportunities to get my students out of their familiar surroundings and into different neighborhoods, cities, and natural environments. We also did the usual museum trips and science center stuff, but I loved the trips which pushed them into unfamiliar territory.

Nudging them out of their comfort zones 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. Many of my students (all low-income, from deeply urban neighborhoods) had never left our city. I had many second graders who'd never seen the ocean, a 30-minute drive away.

So much happens on field trips: the learning is social, emotional, and academic. One year, my sixth-grade partner teacher and I took our 45 students to the Grand Canyon for almost a week. The academic content was connected to the science standards (landforms, erosion, etc.), and they learned a whole lot. But the social and emotional learning -- the bonding and connecting that happened on that trip -- was invaluable and definitely not something we could have replicated within the confines of the classroom.

Planning Ahead

Summer is a fantastic time for teachers to plan field trips. There are many opportunities that are free for schools if you sign up early enough. For the trips I did to Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, we raised thousands of dollars and easily got donations. But start asking early!

Planning field trips in the summer is also a fun way to start thinking through curriculum and connecting the classroom learning to real experiences. And trips don't have to be all entertainment. Field trips that engage students in experiential learning are also powerful; they become fieldwork.

Today, we're off to feed and bathe elephants a a sanctuary for abused elephants. It was founded and is run by a tiny Thai woman who we've been reading about. She's almost single-handedly saving thousands of elephants in Thailand. When we return to our hotel, my son will add to his long list of "What I Learned" on the K-W-L.

What do you see as the impact of field trips? What are favorite field trips you've taken kids on? When planning field trips, what tips do you have for teachers? Please share your thoughts and ideas!

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