Gone Fishing: Five Field Trip Tips
- Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Let’s be honest, at this point in the school year, we’re all itching to get outside of the classroom to spend more time exploring the world together. Field trips are not only the perfect panacea for spring fever, every time we leave the classroom, I find that we come closer together as a classroom community. Here are some of my thoughts about planning low-stress, high-impact field trips. Bon voyage!
Trip Tip 1: Shake it up, Baby!
Novelty is the spice of life, so I like to keep our field trips varied throughout the year. I vary both the locale, the style, and the length of our field trips. Every year, I try to include many different trip types: museums, theaters, outdoorsy trips, community landmarks, guided tours, and art galleries. Some of our field trips take less than an hour – a walk to the local supermarket for a math project about budgeting, for example. Other trips take the entire day as we race back before dismissal.
Depending on your district policies, see if you are allowed to have the parents sign a year-long “walking permission slip,” at the beginning of the year. At my school, we keep these permission slips on file and then take our students on frequent forays into our local community. Whether walking around the block to examine local architecture or collecting rainwater measurements from various points around the neighborhood, our walking permission slips give us the flexibility to truly make our community an extension of our classrooms.
(Also check out this interesting New York Times article, A Field Trip to a Strange New Place: Second Grade Visits the Parking Garage, for ideas about “sidewalk field trips.”)
A local farmers' market provides plenty of opportunities for learning.
Trip Tip 2: Where’s the Bathroom?
Prior to heading out on any field trip, I make sure to gather as much information about our trip destination as possible. Sometimes I even visit the site ahead of time to become familiar with the environment and to plan the field trip experience in detail. (My husband sometimes gets dragged along on these fact-finding missions, and I appreciate his patience as I scribble my notes.)
When I haven’t been to the trip site, I visit the venue’s website to learn as much as I can. I print out maps and mark the locations of the bathrooms – allotting time for strategic bathroom stops is crucial! I also look for places to eat lunch, and research alternatives if lunch facilities aren’t available. I try to prepay for field trips, when necessary, so that my students aren’t waiting with me at a ticket window.
Finally, I plan the visit – both what we will and will not accomplish during a trip. When visiting an art museum, for example, it is far more effective to focus on three or four selected artworks, and to have meaningful discussions about these works, rather than dashing through dozens of artworks. I find that our field trips with very narrow, predetermined foci are most successful.
We spend a lot of time analyzing one painting as a group.
Trip Tip 3: Manage Expectations
I prepare my students for all of our field trips in many stages, so that we are all on the same page come trip-day. I first hold a long Q&A when I initially hand out the permission slips. My students have all sorts of questions about the upcoming trip, especially at the beginning of the year. During the days leading up to the field trip, I send home reminder letters and checklists to help my students prepare for the trip. (For outdoor field trips, I particularly emphasize appropriate attire, sunscreen, and water bottles.)
Finally, the day before the trip, I hold a “mission briefing.” I present my students with a play-by-play itinerary for the field trip, beginning with the weather report for the trip day. I discuss our travel arrangements, projecting a map of our route on the Smartboard. I review behavioral expectations and safety procedures. Perhaps most important, I discuss lunchtime plans, so that I don’t have to answer the “When’s lunch?” question a thousand times during the trip.
I imagine my “mission briefing” sounds like overkill, but I assure you, it isn’t! We always have calmer, more productive field trips when all of my students (and chaperones) know what to expect.
My students were prepared for a quick, cold picnic outside the Guggenheim Museum.
Trip Tip 4: Packing your Bags
This is probably obvious stuff to all of you who have kids of your own, but for we teachers who don’t have kids, I’ve learned about what to bring in my teacher-tote through trial and error (i.e. after getting caught without “sick sacks” too many times.) Here’s what I generally pack:
- Empty Ziploc bags and/or plastic shopping bags (for collecting garbage, carsick kids, broken lunch sacks, etc.)
- Copies of the emergency contact forms for each student – just in case
- A tiny first-aid kit – band aids and antiseptic wipes
- Antibacterial wipes for outdoor trips
- Snack – I always ask for healthy snack donations before trips so I can staunch my students’ munchies. (Why is it that my students can wait until noon to eat back at school, but they are “starving” by 10:00 on field trips?!)
- “Last Drop Pencils” – a bag of teeny, sharpened pencil stubs, (you know, the ones that are too small to really use in class,) for the students’ note taking during the trip. These disposable pencil bits are “good to the last drop.”
- A portable but especially yummy lunch for me – I’ll undoubtedly need a pick-me-up by midday!
It's better to be overprepared for field trips - even for Earth-bound trips.
Trip Tip 5: Subways and Other Big-City Matters
This part really only applies for us urban teachers – everyone else can skip this. As an NYC schoolteacher, field trips look a bit different here than in the rest of the country. Our students ride the subways for free on field trips, and I strongly encourage you to use the subways with your students if you aren’t already! Forgoing school buses mean that you can come and go as you please; you don’t have to stick with a bus schedule. Students rarely get sick on subways, you don’t have to contend with traffic, you don’t have to order transportation in advance, and there is a ton of impromptu learning to be had on the subway. (“How many stops until the museum?”)
I have a couple of hardline subway rules for my students. My students must all enter and exit the subway car through one doorway, even if that takes longer. I stand blocking the door with my body as I count each student. Once aboard the train, students may either sit or stand, but they may not switch their positions on the train. I don’t allow subway musical chairs. (The only exception is if a student gives up his/her seat to an elderly passenger.)
Cities are particularly great places to explore our local communities on foot. Within ten blocks of my school are historic rail yards, the river piers, art galleries, museums, farmers markets, and more. We often visit the same museum more than once in a year, setting a different focus for each visit. Even a trip to the local park can become a scientific exploration of simple and compound machines. NYC teachers (or visitors), let me know if you need any field trip suggestions – I have tons of ideas!
City kids are subway experts, and they watch out for each other.
Some Extra Tidbits …
Blogger Brent Vasicek has written a fabulous post about field trips with many helpful checklists and more practical advice. My hats off to Brent for his suggestion to send out permission slips a month in advance. I have to admit that I’m rarely that organized.
Geocaching – If you can get your hands on some portable GPS devices, you can take your students on a high-tech scavenger hunt within your community. Students will hunt of secret stashes (caches) using latitude and longitude coordinates, as well as other clues. Read Angela Bunyi’s blogpost Latitude/Longitude: Recess Treasure Hunting for more ideas about geocaching.
For inspiring stories about how field trips can change individual classrooms and education more broadly, I recommend the book Out of the Classroom and into the World: Learning from Field Trips, Educating from Experience, and Unlocking the Potential of Our Students and Teachers by Salvatore Vascellaro,
A field trip to my alma mater is one of the most meaningful trips each year for me.