Field Trip Fundamentals

I recently had the pleasure of watching a talented museum guide lead an excited group of fourth graders through a well-designed interactive exhibit about Lewis and Clark’s trip west at St. Louis’ Museum of Westward Expansion. It seemed to be just the sort of experience we want field trips to be—fun, safe, engaging, and productive.

My own first experience as a field trip leader was disastrous. I was a student teacher in Cambridge, England, and we visited a British aviation museum. I only had four students in my charge, but I still managed to lose one. (While I looked away, he slipped into a closet with a locking door.) I’ll never forget the gut-wrenching sensation and desperation I felt when he went missing—or the voices of the other adults exclaiming, “The American has lost Michael!”

Knowing that this is a time when teachers and students often venture into the wider world, I wanted to share a few tips that will ensure that on your field trips, no one gets lost, everyone stays safe, and—oh yes!—the children learn something.

Before the trip

Make sure you know what you are getting into. It’s frustrating to try to keep a group of young students still and attentive during a 45-minute lecture by a well-meaning but unengaging speaker! Avoid this sort of situation by choosing field trips that are developmentally appropriate and that include ways for students to move frequently, to interact, and to learn from hands-on experience.

Prepare for a successful bus ride. For younger children, set up chairs in your room like seats on a bus and practice being on the bus together and following bus rules. For older students, solicit their ideas about safe and appropriate bus behavior. Give students things to do while they’re on the bus: e.g., count the number of red lights, look for historical markers, look for signs of the season, etc.

Make sure your students know what to expect. For instance, before getting on the bus, tell students exactly:

  • where you are going and why
  • when the trip will take place and what parts of school you will miss
  • how you will get there
  • what you  might see and do
  • who else may be there
  • if you will be away for  lunch or recess, when there will be time to eat and play

Think about restroom needs. Plan for restroom time before you leave school, and plan for where and how students will take care of restroom needs once you arrive. Check with your destination ahead of time to see what the bathroom situation is. Decide whether you will be comfortable having other adults take students to the restroom or whether you will need to do that yourself.

Use parents or aides appropriately. Parents or classroom aides can be very helpful on field trips, but they need your guidance on what you expect them to do, how to help and what to do if a student should have a problem or behave inappropriately. Remember that parents and aides do not have all your skills with regard to classroom management and teaching. Keep the tasks you assign them doable, and give explicit instructions so that they know exactly what you expect.

During the trip

Keep expectations and routines as consistent as possible with those in the classroom. If you have an established signal for quiet, use it to gain students’ attention. Think ahead about how you will communicate behavior expectations to students and how you will follow through if students forget the rules or have trouble behaving.

Assign students to working groups. Give students partners or small groups with whom to work. Think through which students will work best together, which might have problems if they were together, and who may need extra adult support.

Make sure students have structure and purpose. If the place you’re visiting does not already have interactive structures in place, give students concrete tasks to accomplish or guides to help their learning, e.g. scavenger hunts, recording sheets for key observations, or checklists of what to see or do.

After the trip

Give students a meaningful way to reflect on their learning. Have students make a “top ten” list of what they learned, write a thank you letter with specific details to the people at the site, or write captions for photographs you took while on the trip.

Have fun on your outings, and as always, please share your own ideas and tips for making them successful!

This post draws from the What Every Teacher Needs to Know series of books; Margaret Berry Wilson is author of three books in the series.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Field Trips

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