Rethinking Field Trips

Field trips used to be a common and highly anticipated part of the middle grades experience: young adolescents, bleary eyed, climbing on the bus with iPods and handheld games. It wasn’t so much where they were going—it was all about not going to class.

Security concerns since September 11, 2001, combined with budget cuts and pressures of standardized testing, have all but eliminated field trips in many districts. Here are some suggestions for making field trips cost-effective and productive.

1. Get help with funding. Gayle Potter from Michigan wrote a grant 15 years ago that funded parental involvement using field trips as the hook. She started with one-day bus trips to Chicago for tours of the Museum of Natural History and Shedd’s Aquarium. Student participation was covered by the grant; parents and family members paid $5 each to ride along. Anyone could go as long as there was room on the bus. “It was fabulous,” she says. “We saw tons of parents we’d never seen before.”

The school branched out, offering one-day trips to Ontario, Washington, D.C., and New York City. These trips are now an institution and eagerly anticipated by students and parents alike, even though the grant money is long gone. “In the spring, we have a handout for our incoming sixth graders that outlines the trips for the year,” Potter says. “We offer some scholarships or partial payments, but families know a year in advance and most make payments throughout the year.”

2. Stay local. The community offers a gold mine of opportunities at little to no cost. When Erin Scholes taught in Illinois, her team took students on a walking field trip to a cemetery. “We were met there by local historians who helped us use grave stones and documents to learn about the history of our town.”

3. Stay in school. At Erin’s current school in Connecticut, teachers bring in speakers from local museums, creating in-school field trips. “They bring small artifacts with them and give topic-specific talks. This option saves us and our kids money, but still gives them the experience of seeing new things.”

Kristine Nader, a fifth grade teacher in Illinois, says it’s especially beneficial to have in-school field trips to accommodate special needs students. “We have found a number of wonderful local resources for speakers and hands-on activities for students. For example, we have local paleontologists come and speak to the students about what they do. They bring samples of real bones and lots of materials. We then have parents help the students make bone casts as the scientists do on site.”

4. Travel online. Students can visit museums, witness historic events, and travel the world without leaving the classroom. Many museums offer virtual experts who deliver online lessons, and a wide range of destinations offer online fieldtrips allowing students and teachers to explore the attraction online. Neil Sandham in Canada recommends as a source of information about virtual field trips.

Eliminating field trips seems to be a national trend. In the 2010-11 school year, 51% of school districts nationwide reported eliminating field trips, according to a survey of the American Association of School Administrators. However, with a little “rethinking,” middle grades educators can give students the learning benefits of a traditional field trip without worrying about cost or time away from school.