How field trips boost students’ lifelong learning

February 16, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

My second-grader recently went on a school field trip to the zoo to learn about bats.

His teacher prepped his class leading up to the visit, asking the students to read books and magazine articles about bats. My son peppered me with bat facts.

When the day of the field trip arrived, my son was super excited. He reported back that while at the zoo, they watched a video about bats, studied the tiny bones of a bat’s skeleton and compared the wings of a bat to that of a bird.

“Did you see any live bats?” I asked.

“Mom, bats are nocturnal. They were all sleeping.”

Oh. Of course.

Some of my most memorable school experiences stem from field trips in which I had immersive, hands-on experiences, seeing and experiencing things we had discussed in class. I’m grateful that my children are receiving these types of experiences in their own schooling.

There is more to a field trip than simply an escape from the monotony of the classroom. Field trips can serve to enhance and bring to life the learning that is taking place inside the school walls.

“We don’t just want our children to acquire work skills from their education; we also want them to develop into civilized people who appreciate the breadth of human accomplishments. The school field trip is an important tool for meeting this goal,” wrote Jay P. Greene, Daniel H. Bowen and Brian Kisida of the University of Arkansas in “The Educational Value of Field Trips,” published in the Winter 2014 edition of Education Next.

Unfortunately, due to fiscal constraints and an emphasis in recent years on more time spent in classrooms preparing for tests, field trips are not always seen as a priority when it comes to time or money. The Arkansas researchers conducted a study on the value of culturally enriching field trips and found a multitude of benefits to students from these types of experiences.

“Students randomly assigned to receive a school tour of an art museum experience improvements in their knowledge of and ability to think critically about art, display stronger historical empathy, develop higher tolerance, and are more likely to visit such cultural institutions as art museums in the future,” according to the Education Next article. “If schools cut field trips or switch to ‘reward’ trips that visit less-enriching destinations, then these important educational opportunities are lost.”

The study noted that it is particularly important that schools serving disadvantaged students provide culturally enriching field trip experiences.

“They can look at pictures in books, but it is a very different experience to actually be there. It’s learning in context,” Schenevus Central School District Superintendent Thomas Jennings said. “Field trips are important, and we need to do this and we need to do more. We’re continually pushing to do better.”

As part of its effort to offer its students better enrichment opportunities, the district, located in Otsego County, New York, put together a committee of parents, staff members and a board of education member to determine what types of field trip opportunities the district should be offering.

The group developed a list that includes categories such as history and civics; science and technology; nature and environment; performing and fine arts; health, wellness and teamwork; and college and career.

“We recognize that these kinds of opportunities are essential for kids,” Mr. Jennings said.

The potential trips include museums, farms and natural wonders such as Niagara Falls.

In New York state’s Sullivan County, Monticello Central School District art teacher Laurie Kilgore takes her Chase Elementary School students on field trips to a nearby natural wonder: the Bashakill Wetlands, which is about 15 minutes from the school.

There, the students practice their observation skills while drawing and then painting the vibrant landscape around them. In addition, they are immersed in the natural habitat of local wildlife.

“Kids get excited to see something they’ve learned about in school,” she said, adding that the trips often incorporate concepts from other areas of study, such as science and social studies. Last year, the school’s physical education teacher accompanied the group and led the students on a hike.

“We don’t have to be so confined to a certain space for learning to take place,” Ms. Kilgore said.

For some students, the value of a school field trip is even greater. Children growing up in rural areas or who live in poverty may have few opportunities for these types of activities outside of school, according to the Arkansas field trip study.

“More-advantaged families may take their children to these cultural institutions outside of school hours, but less-advantaged students are less likely to have these experiences if schools do not provide them,” the researchers state in the Education Next article.

Parents can seek out inexpensive adventures to have with their children that enhance what they are learning in the classroom. Going for a hike in a local park and bringing along a sketchbook can lend itself to a multitude of learning opportunities, Ms. Kilgore said. Your kids may even have some ideas of their own of great places to visit.

“It’s really just talking to your kids. They do a lot of this in school. Let them teach you,” Ms. Kilgore said.

Need home field trip ideas?

Visit local parks: pack a lunch, go for a hike and bring a sketchpad
Look for natural wonders: Niagara Falls, Howe Caverns
Visit a zoo or aquarium
Ask to visit your local fire department
Go to a play or musical (support your local school’s drama department if there are no professional theaters nearby)
Plan a trip to a science or art museum

Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her second- and fourth-grade sons, both of whom look forward to their next field trip opportunity.

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