Field Trips: From Fiasco to Fantastic (Part 2)

In my last blog post I introduced my new “miniseries” on how to take fieldtrips from fiasco to fantastic. Whether you are a classroom teacher or a site coordinator for a field trip destination, you know all of the planning and effort that can go into a successful field trip. You might even know how much planning and energy can go into a less than satisfactory trip, too!

Of course, we all know that field trips can also be amazing opportunities for students and teachers to get out of the classroom and learn in new and exciting ways (not that your classroom isn’t exciting!). So what can classroom teachers and site coordinators do to ensure that the learning is meaningful, and no one gets left behind in the bathroom when the bus takes off for the school? I contend that if the following four items are given special attention, your next field trip is much more likely to fall in the fantastic category:

  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.

Today we will tackle point number two. (If you missed the details on point number one, you can go back and check it out here).

Field Trips (2)

2. Timing is everything.

Ask any museum, zoo or nature center. If they are in the northern hemisphere, I can pretty much guarantee you that their crazy-busy time is in April and May. They may have a smaller peak in October, but near the end of the school year they either reaching capacity limits or the place is crawling with kids like ants around an industrious anthill. Or both. The problem, of course, is that in crowds like these, the kids may be far less industrious than the ants.

If you are used to taking field trips at the end of the school year, I encourage you to try a fieldtrip at nearly any other time of year. You will be amazed at the lack of crowds. Take it a step further in bucking the norm, and plan for a Monday instead of a Friday. You may have the whole place to yourself!

Consider the stress of fighting the crowds to get a glimpse of a favorite animal or to try that new hands-on activity, and you can see how planning for a less busy time could be a game-changer. Not only do crowds make the learning more challenging, but they can stress out the teachers and chaperones as they fight to make sure that they haven’t lost a child (or five!). What’s more is that you won’t have to settle for your 5th choice of days for the trip, because the site is already booked on your first four choices. Add in the fact that busses tend to be more readily available during the fieldtrip slow time, and you might just be considering a change. Am I right?

There is more to timing than logistics, though. Timing can mean the difference between a fun fieldtrip and a meaningful one. Yes, it is difficult to plan a trip earlier in the year when you may feel like you have less time to “fritter” away in the face of eminent testing.

On the other hand, what if you could plan a fieldtrip that complimented the curriculum, engaged the students in what they were learning, and powerfully cemented concepts in their minds? Wouldn’t that be more beneficial? Consider choosing a unit that falls in November or February. Prepare for the fieldtrip with content that you already must offer. Follow up the fieldtrip with an activity that requires the students to process their experience and link it to the curriculum and the standards. Take advantage of the curiosity and excitement of the fieldtrip to focus and heighten the students’ learning.

But I already link my field trips to the curriculum!” you cry. Indeed, you may very well have to do exactly that just to get approval from the administration. However, if you are linking back to a unit from several months prior, the value of the experience may be watered down. If you are linking to a current unit at the end of the end of the school year, you may struggle with the crowds. It is certainly worth considering if there are other units and other times that could be a better fit for a field trip that supplements the curriculum.

Of course, planning a field trip for earlier in the school year may take extra effort. I think I even acknowledged that in the first blog post. Ugh! So what can you do to make the planning a little simpler?

First, go back to Part 1 of the series and make sure that you are planning out all of the details. If you are used to planning a field trip for the end of the year or for a different unit, you may need to adjust the details a little bit. Be sure to start early, if possible.

Next, visit the site and ask questions ahead of time. Many field trip destinations invite teachers to visit for free for planning purposes. Some sites even plan educator events early in the school year that showcase their offerings (and even the offerings of other sites). Take advantage of these opportunities to research options, plan, and enjoy the place peacefully.

Do you wonder if that planetarium show will match your unit? Go watch it.

Do you worry that going earlier in the season will mean less opportunities to see the wildlife or plants that you are used to in May? Go look. See what your options might be. Talk to staff about alternatives that will meet your curriculum needs. Determine what clothing might be required in a colder or rainier season and plan accordingly.

Do you want to know more about the tour or program than the website can share in 40 words or less? Ask the staff. They want your field trip to be as successful as you do, and they can help you figure out the best plan for your needs. You can even ask about academic standards that different programming might support more directly.

Ask for additional resources, too! Many field trip sites prepare pre and post activities for classroom teachers to use before and after a tour or special program or simply to complement an exhibit or experience. They have often been aligned with local curricula and/or state and national standards. Traditionally, these resources are woefully underutilized, because it can be difficult to add “one more thing” into the unit. Of course, you read Part 1 of the series, and you are uber-organized now. If there is a pre or post activity available that fits with your curriculum, it may be worth taking the time to plan how it can fit the standards and other demands of your regular teaching. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t. But don’t overlook a useful tool.

Field trip site coordinators, does your site offer pre-planning opportunities for teachers? If not, I encourage you to consider how you might be able to do so. You may have noticed that the teachers who have been bringing groups for several years seem to have the kinks worked out of their process. In large part, this is because they know what to expect and how to maximize their students’ experience after several years of tweaking. You may be able to cut off the need for a few years for new teachers (and teachers who want to try something new) by offering a special “Educator Night” or by offering free entry to teachers who are going to or have made reservations for a field trip.

Overall, making a change to a traditional field trip schedule, or planning something for earlier in the year may require a larger time investment or may require that you move fast in August to get the ball rolling. That said, the payoff could be tremendous. Avoid the crowds and bolster the curriculum in real time. Those two changes, alone, might be enough to make your field trip the best ever. Plus, after you have planned the trip once, the next year will be cake.

You may look at all of the options and decide that you still need to plan your field trip for the end of the year. Perhaps you are going to an outdoor venue and have concerns about the financial ability of your students to have adequate clothing for the weather in January. Or perhaps you just really want the field trip to coincide with an end-of-year unit. If crowds are not an issue, April and May could very well be your best choice. If crowds are an issue, ask the site if there is a day of the week that tends to be slower.

Planning a field trip for early December may not work, but consider all of your options and think creatively before you nix the idea. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

So what do you think? Site coordinators, what are the benefits of visiting your site at less traditional times of year? Classroom teachers, have you tried planning field trips for other times of year? What were your experiences? Share your thoughts below in the comments and expand the conversation. 


Once you have all of the details worked out, and you know when you are going, the next step is ensuring that the kids and the chaperones are ready. Be sure to keep your eye out for parts three and four next week, 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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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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