Planning a successful (and educational) field trip
The world can be your classroom -- but ensuring that your field trip is a productive learning experience for students takes planning. This article helps you prepare your students, yourself, and others for a successful field trip.
The world is your classroom. Learning can — and should — happen everywhere. Field trips have been a part of education for thousands of years. But valuable learning experiences outside the classroom are not trivial to plan, execute, and follow up on — let alone to pay for or to convince a principal or superintendent that they’re valuable. But despite these challenges, a carefully planned and integrated field trip offers tremendous learning potential for all students.
Why take this field trip?
How does your field trip support the curriculum? If you can’t answer this question, then don’t expect great support from your administration for taking the trip! Before you request permission to take the trip, take the time to identify the following instructional elements in a document you can share with colleagues and with your students:
- Curriculum materials or guides that have been developed by staff members from the site you will visit.
- Learning outcomes for the trip
- Standard Course of Study alignment
- Essential concepts underlying the content and structure of the trip
- Key vocabulary that will be a part of the trip
This phase of any field trip is perhaps the most demanding and time consuming, but is crucial to the success of the experience for everyone. Research has shown that students given pre-trip instruction learn and retain more from a field trip than those who receive no preparation.1 The following suggestions will make a difference in your next field trip:
Introduce the trip as a part of a lesson. LEARN NC offers lesson plans that have been designed around a visit to a museum or to the zoo. While you may not find a lesson that exactly suits your needs, the examples in the sidebar will at least give you ideas about how to integrate your trip into the curriculum.
Stimulate students’ interest for the trip. Use artifacts from previous trips to this site such as photos, brochures, or videos. Consider inviting students who previously participated on this field trip as guest speakers to talk about their experience. This is especially useful for overnight trips to distant places, where students will want to know what to expect.
Discuss your expectations for learning and behavior. Students may have certain expectations of your trip based on previous trips taken with other teachers or organizations. Prepare them mentally for the experience by reviewing a schedule of activities or itinerary. Explain what and how they will learn and what tools they will use. Don’t assume that students possess the observation and exploration skills necessary to conduct the activities you or someone else has designed. Campsilos.org suggests having students practice these skills in the classroom by describing common objects to one another, such as a clothespin, a paper clip, or a paintbrush. If the result of the field trip is a product such as a multimedia presentation, report, or dramatization, consider giving students a rubric before the trip to guide their exploration. And remind students of the consequences of inappropriate behavior during the trip.
Prepare students with a twenty-four hour “staging period.” Remind students to get a good night’s rest and to eat a nutritious breakfast prior to departure. Ask students to mentally prepare themselves for the experience by thinking about how their behavior at school might not be appropriate in public spaces like museums or historic sites. Remind them to dress appropriately, which means taking into consideration the weather and the venue. Like behavior, clothing that passes the school’s dress code may not be appropriate in another location.
Develop a schedule of activities or itinerary. Review this with students and ask them to agree to follow this schedule. You can ask them to sign the itinerary as they would a learning contract.
Create a packing checklist for overnight travel. For overnight travel, create a packing checklist for boys and one for girls. Most students tend to overpack, which can be disastrous if you are traveling long distances. If students are paired to share rooms, encourage them to decide who will bring electric appliances that can be shared. (If you’re planning a trip abroad, the American Council for International Studies Website provides advice for teachers and their students.)
Obtain prior approval from your school or school system. Though you may have standing permission from your administration, there may be other events that require students to be present on that day. Check your school’s calendar before you schedule your trip.
Obtain parental permissions. Your school may have a standard form for permissions. Remember to carefully describe why the field trip is important and how it relates to the curriculum. Consider using the permission form as a recruiting tool for chaperones.
Complete medical permission forms. Unless you are traveling with an insured travel company, you may have to create your own medical permission form which includes all information related to student health, insurance, and parental permission for medical treatment in the case of an emergency. For example forms, conduct a web search for “medical permission form” and “travel” or a search on “medical release form.”
Fundraising: just say no! Educators are kind-hearted individuals who want to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for everyone. If the trip includes costs to individual students, consider other options for funding aside from fund-raising activities. It is most likely that students have already participated in numerous fund-raising activities and, depending on their age, door-to-door sales may not be a safe option. Consider asking parents to fund the trip or make a tax-deductible donation to the school to make the trip possible.
Prepare chaperones for their role. Send a letter or hold a meeting with chaperones prior to the trip to establish agreement of chaperone role and responsibility. Don’t take for granted that adults will intuitively know their role. Review your expectations of how they will assist you to ensure student learning and safety.
Hold a meeting with bus driver(s). Whether you are using your school system’s buses or traveling with a private bus company, make sure to introduce yourself as the lead teacher to all drivers. Thank them in advance for helping you to make the trip run smoothly. Make sure they know where you are going and that they have a copy of the itinerary which should have departure and arrival times for all activities.
Conduct a pre-visit to scout the site. Do you know where the restrooms are located? Are there any possible distractions nearby like a music store or candy store? What do you know about accessibility of the site for your physically challenged students? What spaces are available for students to take notes, make sketches, or take pictures or video? Can you obtain a map of the visit to share with students in advance? What can you discern about crowd control within the visit space? How will students with special needs be affected by various noises, people, lighting, and other environmental factors?
Develop a participant checklist. Develop a system for accounting for everyone on the trip, including chaperones. This may be a checklist with everyone’s name that you can check off as you depart for various stages of the trip. You might also consider assigning a number to each participant and conduct a “count off” before leaving.
Check the weather in advance. Check weather conditions of your destination at least a week in advance and then again one day prior to the trip so that you can prepare yourself and your participants accordingly. See weather.com for current weather information for your destination.
Reconfirm travel and accommodations. If you are planning overnight travel, reconfirm flights, hotel bookings, tickets, and so on just prior to departure.
What to bring along
Each field trip will dictate its own supply list, but there are some common considerations that are worth noting before you leave. When you discuss this aspect of the trip, remember also to caution students about what not to bring on the trip. Tour guides won’t be motivated to do their best job when they notice some students are equipped with headphones and portable music players!
- Hard surface like a clipboard for note-taking or sketching
- Container (zip-lock bag, grocery bag, etc.) for collecting artifacts
- Recording device like pens, pencils, crayons, markers, and paper; handheld devices; laptops; cameras, video cameras or digital cameras; and a tape recorder. (For tips on how to best capture the experience through images or video, see The Elements of Digital Storytelling)
- Students might bring some money for purchasing memorabilia to use in class presentations. You might encourage students to purchase postcards which can better capture sites of interest and allow students to focus their attention to the site itself. Carefully monitor students in museum gift shops and stores since some students may spend too much time shopping rather than exploring!
- For young students and overnight trips, equip students with a small note card containing the lodging contact information and/or cell phone number of lead teacher/chaperone.
- Container for class supplies, a first-aid kit, and a container to protect student prescribed medications. For foreign travel, make sure students bring a note from their doctor or pharmacist to accompany prescribed medicines to facilitate passage through customs. For any travel, prescription medicines should be transported in their original container.
- A “Hot File” — a plastic, sealable file or large manila envelope to transport the following important documents:
- Emergency contact information for your school and school system
- List of students who must take medication during the trip
- For travel out of state or foreign travel, copies of insurance documents
- Checklist of all students and chaperones in attendance
- Extra cash for emergency situations
- Contact information of site contact(s), i.e., name, phone number, role, and office location on site.
- Trip itinerary
- Cell phone for emergency calls and wrong turns
- Student identifiers. To easily spot your students in a crowded space, think about how you will identify them with a quick glance. One teacher suggests creating tie-dye T-shirts with young students prior to the trip that they will wear on that day.2
- Consider inviting another faculty member along who might take this trip in the future. They can shadow you while also serving as a chaperone!
- Lynn Cohen, “How to Run First-Rate Field Trips.” Instructor-Intermediate 107:6 (March 1988), p. 85.
- L. Cullen and L. Whitaker, “Making the Most of Field Trips.” Time 163:26 (2004), p. 54.
- Eugene D. Gennaro, “The Effectiveness of Using Previsit Instructional Materials on Learning for a Museum Field Trip Experience.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching (May 1981), pp. 275–279.
- “Instructional Materials on Learning for a Museum Field Trip Experience”
Journal of Research in Science Teaching (May 1981), pp. 275–279
- W. J. Krepel and C. R.Duvall, “Field trips: A guide for planning and conducting educational experiences.” Washington, D.C.: National Education Association (1981).
- S. Martin and R. Seevers, “A Field Trip Planning Guide for Early Childhood Classes.” Preventing School Failure 47:4 (2003), pp.177-180.
- K. Moser, “Ten Tips for a Successful Field Trip” Teaching K–8 (April), pp.44–45.