Field Trips – From Fiasco to Fantastic (Part 1)

I recently presented on the topic of field trips at the Advancing Environmental Education Conference organized by the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education. It was something I had wanted to present about a few years ago, but life got in the way. Last month I pulled together all of my recollections and memories from my time in school programs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and hoped for a few participants to show up.

I was thrilled as I watched the room fill up. While I had expected classroom teachers, I was quick to see that the bulk of the participants were more like me – informal education professionals. They were the folks who coordinated the fieldtrips at their sites. The ones who had seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. And they wanted to know what they could do to facilitate smoother experiences. The classroom teachers in the room wanted the same. The topic was clearly a hot one. As I reflected on the session, I thought that it might be a great topic for a blog post. I hope that you agree!


Field Trips (1)

Field trips. What is it about that word that can spark such joy in the heart of a student and such fear, or at least hesitation, in the heart of a teacher? That’s not to say that teachers don’t love the outcomes of fieldtrips, but the planning and stress that goes into pulling off a successful fieldtrip can be enough for even the heartiest of souls to feel overwhelmed at the prospect. Yet, year after year, school groups crowd onto busses and make the trek to a local (or not so local) museum, zoo, library, nature center, botanic garden, or other destination deemed worthy of visiting.

Some field trips turn out beautifully. I’m not just talking about learning goals. I mean that the kids have a great time and learn something. The busses show up on time and everyone remembers their sack lunch. Chaperones enjoy the experience and clamor to sign up again for the next fieldtrip. Teachers fall into their beds exhausted, yet supremely satisfied with the fruits of their labors. Even the educators at the field trip sites finish their day on that incredible high that comes from basking in the excitement of so many ah ha moments made that day.

And then some field trips are fiascos. It’s not that they are necessarily failures, but the stress level is palpable, and everyone goes home exhausted. Goals aren’t necessarily met. If they are lucky, they console themselves by saying, “Well at least the kids had fun.” **sigh**

So what it is that differentiates these two kinds of experiences?

Indeed, even if your last fieldtrip wasn’t a complete fiasco, are there some steps that you could have taken to make it go even smoother?

After working with school groups for several years in a science museum setting, having seen the best and the worst of experiences, I contend that there are four main areas that must be given attention in order to create a fantastic fieldtrip:

  1. Attention to details. Every. Stinking. Detail.
  2. Attention to timing. April and May are the "busy season" for most fieldtrips, but is that really the best time to go?
  3. Attention to basic needs. Think Maslow's hierarchy. What does everyone need in order to reach their full fieldtrip potential?
  4. Attention to chaperones. Chaperones are often overlooked as resources and as people who want a good experience, too.

Yes, addressing these areas will take additional time and effort on the front end, but I guarantee that the payoff will be worth it. Today, and in the following three blog posts, I will elaborate on each of these four areas with the goal of providing both classroom teachers and fieldtrip site coordinators with food for thought and ideas that can be implemented right away.

So I suppose I should start with number 1...

1. The Devil’s in the Details

field-trip-clip-art-black-and-white-galleryWell, duh. I promise that the next three posts will provide more “Ah ha” moments. None the less, there is no way to overstate the value of detailed preparation. For those that have not planned a lot of fieldtrips, you may not even know where to start. I have done my own online search for fieldtrip checklists, and I have been surprised (and disappointed) by the lack of resources.

So, obviously, I put something together, myself. I invite you to download my own Field Trip Planner and adjust it to suite your own needs. It may look like a crazy long checklist, and it is. The point is that you consider all of the details ahead of time so that nothing gets missed, and as many contingencies are considered. Something as simple as confirming your reservation a week out can prevent showing up on a day when they don’t expect you (yes, it can happen) and gives you the opportunity to discuss alternatives if the weather forecast is becoming worrisome.

Some steps may not apply. You may need to add others specific to your situation. The key is to think of every stinking detail that will need to be taken care of before, during, and after the fieldtrip. Be sure to include steps that are required by your district, your school, or the destination.

A detailed list doesn’t mean that one person has to be responsible for everything. If you tend to be the “big picture person,” find a teammate or parent who proudly boasts “detail-oriented” on his or her resume. Give that person the check list, and work through it together. In fact, build a fieldtrip team so that the weight does not have to fall to one single person. If possible, make sure that someone on your team has led a fieldtrip from your school or district before. They may know about steps to add to the list that have tripped them up in the past or that help them to succeed.

Fieldtrip site coordinators, don’t feel like this step isn’t for you, too! Pass along a checklist including items specific to your site. You may want to consider sending it with an invoice or attaching it to a confirmation e-mail. Does your site require advance payment? Include the deadline in the checklist. Are there steps that teachers should know ahead of time about the check-in process? Add that to the list. Consider yourself part of the teacher’s fieldtrip team. Whatever resources – like a checklist – that you can provide ahead of time will most likely pay off for you in the long run.

Sure, you can’t make someone use the checklist, but there is bound to be a teacher out there who will be thrilled to have a new tool. No doubt, it will make a difference for some of the school groups coming your way, and that means a smoother experience for you, too.

So what do you think? What details do you think are important to plan for? What has tripped you up in the past? Site coordinators, what details do you wish teachers would keep in mind? Teachers, how can site coordinators help support you so that you don’t miss any details? Share your own experiences in the comments section so that we can all learn from each other.

Details, of course, are just the beginning. Be sure to keep your eye out for parts two, three, and four later this week and next, so that your next field trip is your best one so far. To ensure that you don’t miss the next post, sign up to receive e-mail notification of all of my blog posts. I promise to only use your e-mail for good (blog posts) and not evil (spam).

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  • Karen Hays

    April 5, 2016 at 10:16 pm Reply

    Great post and perfect timing for the busiest of field trip seasons!

    • tiffanyk

      April 6, 2016 at 9:42 am Reply

      Thanks, Karen! I hope that it will be helpful.

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