Field Trips

Field trips are a great way to bring excitement and adventure to learning. A focused, well-planned field trip can be the perfect vehicle to introduce new skills and concepts to kids, reinforce ongoing lessons and leverage the learning potential of other trips you'll take throughout the session. If your field trips are going to be more than just fun, however, it will take serious teamwork and planning. When it comes to maximizing the learning value of field trips, nothing is more important than what you do long before stepping onto the bus.

Planning a Focused Field Trip

The secret to planning a focused field trip is to make connections between the trip and your curriculum, learning goals and other projects. Trips have to be integrated into the big picture so that their lessons aren't lost. A trip to an amusement park will always be fun, but with planning and preparation, it can also be a vehicle for learning about topics ranging from engineering to why we have to obey the rules.

When planning, remember that you have two separate audiences to engage—the kids, of course, but also your leaders, counselors and helpers. Everyone must understand the objectives, goals and roles, which differ for each audience. Everyone must be part of the planning so that everyone feels a sense of ownership, although different audiences will play a different role in each planning step. For each audience, your planning should cover the four stages of a field trip: the pre-trip, the field trip itself, the post-trip, and the connections between trips.

Before you begin planning, have a curriculum for the term ready, or at least an idea of the major concepts you'll be working on. Field trips are fun, but they should reinforce educational goals. Although trips must be focused in order to realize their full value, they can involve multiple concepts, from language and history to life skills.

Goals of a Focused Field Trip

    • To ensure that field trips reinforce larger learning objectives

    • To involve staff and children in the planning process

    • To think through projects and activities associated with the field trip.

Materials and Equipment

    • Oversized pads of paper, 2' x 3' (preferable) or blackboard for group maps

    • Journals

Step 1: Curriculum Planning 

The first job is to plan an overview of all the field trips you might take during the term; this should be done early in the term or even before the term actually begins. Gather your co-leaders, counselors and assistants, then start a mapping exercise. For an idea of how this process might work, take a look at our explanation of mapping, which uses a field trip example.

Spend most of your time on the first ring thinking of places to visit, rather than on the outer rings. At this stage, you are just looking for initial validation; you'll do more detailed maps for each prospective place. Add another frame around the ones described in the example. (You may need to tape sheets of paper together to get enough room.) Then ask, "Where can we find information about these places?" Answering this question will help you in two ways. First, you'll get background information for the pre-visit, and second, you'll get a starting point for collecting resources that the children can use for their pre- and post-trip activities.

Once you have many ideas for possible field trips, you and your team can begin to winnow down the list to decide which trips you'll take and when. Think especially about how each place correlates with learning goals for the term and provides opportunities for links between the trips.

Step 2: Trip Preparation With Your Team

Every field trip presents a host of learning opportunities, which is why it's so important to focus on goals. Otherwise, you may miss some key opportunities, or they may be so diffuse that they won't register with the children.

Repeat the mapping exercise with your team, but this time focus on the individual field trips you intend to take. Start by writing the name of the first idea in the center of a new map (e.g., zoo) and repeat the question, "What can we see or do there?" This time you are looking for more ideas by concentrating longer on each prospective site. When done, draw a box around the answers, and have team members suggest answers to the question, "What can we learn about there?" The objective is to identify specific learning opportunities and resources. Do a separate map for each field trip.

Be sure to visit each location in advance of the trip, either before or after this second mapping stage. By doing so you'll find important information such as new learning opportunities, helpful (or unhelpful) staff, and supporting literature to take back to the class. This step is critical because you want to identify opportunities and challenges before the kids get there; you also need mundane (yet essential) logistical information, such as the location of bathrooms and where to go if you or a student gets lost. You may even find out that the destination is actually not appropriate for your group.

Long before the trip, begin collecting other resource materials, such as books, articles, poems, and Web site links that relate to the field trip and its specific learning goals. Work the materials into class activities in preparation for the trip. For example, if you read books to the kids each day and are ramping up for a trip to the zoo, start including books about animals. Or you can have the kids visit related Web sites and report on information they learn there.

Step 3: Trip Preparation With the Children

Integrating topical resource materials into class activities is just one way to prepare kids for a field trip. You also want to prepare them by teaching observation skills so that they can get the most out of the experience. Try integrating the following exercises (or similar ones) into the day leading up to the trip:

    • Involve the kids in a mapping activity like the one you did in Step 2 with your colleagues, but this time, shift your focus. First, you want to assess the kids' prior knowledge, and second, you want to give kids input into what they'll be doing on the trip. Ask questions such as, "What would you like to see or learn there?" Then try more specific maps, just as you did with your team.
tip Never assume too much about what you think kids should know about a site or subject, especially when working with kids from under-resourced communities, who may have little experience outside their neighborhoods. Mapping exercises are a great, nonthreatening way to assess their prior knowledge.
    • With older kids, especially, use the trip as the basis for an inquiry-based project by spending time extracting kids' questions that are related to the field trip site. The projects can be undertaken as a full group or in teams or pairs. Spend time before the trip doing research, and follow the trip with a reporting activity.

    • To teach observation skills, ask the kids to write down all the things they notice about a particular object in the classroom in a given amount of time.

    • Select another object, and have the kids call out as many questions as they can think of about that object. (This is also a good way to collect ideas for pre-trip research projects.)

    • Try simple pattern writing exercises like "At the zoo they have a _____."

    • Go to a different environment, perhaps a different room in your facility or a local restaurant, and have the kids try a saturation reporting exercise, in which they sit down and, in either words or pictures, rapidly record everything they see, hear, smell and so forth.

    • Have the children make collages by finding pictures of "Things I might see at the zoo."

Step 4: More Pre-Trip Activities

Below are some other ways to get kids prepared and excited in the days before the trip:

    • Every day, do journal activities that relate to the upcoming trip or destination. For a trip to the zoo, you might ask kids to "draw a picture of your favorite animal" or "draw an animal you've seen in your neighborhood."

    • Try some more advanced pattern writing activities from books and poems related to the destination.

    • If possible, bring digital cameras on the trip so that kids can take pictures for later projects. Be sure you have introduced proper use of the camera and basic photography techniques.

    • Think about what sort of projects you'll do after the trip to reinforce the trip's learning goals and use the experience as a platform for introducing new skills.

    • Visit online geographic mapping sites such as to create a map of the journey you'll be taking. Also try visiting some aerial mapping sites. Have the kids print out and paste the maps in their journals. Discuss how to use maps, and point out some of the interesting sights the class will pass along the way, such as rivers, bridges or landmarks. You'll find links to some mapping resources at the end of this section.

    • Create a Web page to use as a lesson plan, record pre-visit information and provide related links for the kids.

    • Do shorter activities to introduce some of the technologies you'll use in the reporting project, such as a brief panel book activity using a book about the zoo; a quick presentation project that you'll return to after the trip when you have more information; or a photo-editing activity to give the kids some preliminary experience before working with their trip photos.

    • Make a list of things to bring, such as your journals, maps and so forth.
tip Try this activity: Instead of telling kids the rules of behavior for the trip, ask them what they think the rules should be and discuss each one. When kids have input, they're more aware and responsible. Of course, if they miss any rules, you can suggest a few yourself. Record the rules and have kids write them down in their journals. Review them with the kids on the bus just before arriving at your destination.

Step 5: The Bus Ride

Too often, bus rides can be chaotic, distracting affairs or just wasted time, especially with small children. One way to make them more productive is to use the maps you printed earlier. During the drive, have kids follow along on their maps, and ask them to jot down notes in their journals about the things they see, especially the landmarks you discussed earlier.

Step 6: The Visit Itself

Yes, the trip is supposed to be fun, and you don't want to interfere with that, but be sure to take time for concentrated learning as well. Although each site will provide different kinds of opportunities, try to do the following:

    • Work time into the day for sharing the cameras and taking pictures you can use in specific later projects.

    • Have periods for recording thoughts in your journals. Yes, you should do this, too, as part of good modeling. At an amusement park, for example, take a 5- or 10-minute break to have everyone do an immersion writing activity; or at the zoo, take two minutes after each main exhibit hall for the kids to record all the animals they saw.

    • Try to schedule an interviewing project with someone at the site, such as a zookeeper or the person who maintains the roller coaster.

    • On the ride back, have the kids do some writing or drawing activities in their journals, such as recording the five things they liked most and why.
tip Try this activity on the ride home: Ask the kids to call out all the questions they still have after the trip along with the new ones that have occurred to them since. Record them as they're called out—you'll end up with some great ideas for follow-up research projects on the Web or in the library.

Step 7: Post-Trip Projects

The sky's the limit here, depending on where you went, the work you've done before and the age of your kids. You can build Web pages, presentations or documentary reports that include writing, pictures, and even animations or videos. Just be sure that you don't miss the opportunity to use the trip to work on mastering skills or introducing new ones.

Field trips are the perfect platform for integrating the teaching of new technologies in a cohesive learning program, so look through some of the multimedia projects in the Activities section and adapt them to your needs. By the way, don't forget to do something for the parents to show them what you learned, such as a quick newsletter with pictures and written pieces on "What we learned at the zoo."

tip Never plan a field trip for a Friday—you don't want the weekend to intrude on the excitement. The middle of the week is best, because you can come right back and begin learning new skills for your post-trip project.