The Importance of Field Trips and Their Decline

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to take a road trip from North Carolina to Colorado. Over the course of three days, six of my friends and I had the opportunity to see the landscape change from what I realized was basically a deciduous forest to Appalachian mountains to plains to the Rockies. Not only did our physical landscape change, but the cultures of the places we drove through and stopped in varied greatly. For instance, in Nashville, boot barns and country-singing cowboys dot a city landscape filled with concert halls and museums. In Arkansas, the primary industry was farming and miles would pass between cities where all that could be seen was farm land and an occasional house or gas station. We spent a night in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, which may be the smallest town (our friend we stayed with says it’s not big enough to call it a town, it’s more like a village) I have ever stayed in. Our sweet friend knew the population of the town by name and was used to driving fifteen to twenty minutes if not longer (the nearest big city was about an hour away) for errands and needs larger than food from their single grocery store. In the span of three days, I observed and was intrigued to ask more about the ‘whats,’ ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ than I am or would have been in a classroom.

What I have learned is that physical experiences make topics more real and concrete than seeing a diagram or reading a paragraph in a textbook or even watching a video. I had hear about how flat Kansas was, but quite honestly, thought that it was a lie until I spent ten hours driving through it. However, in looking in to what made the geography of Kansas so different (and flat), I was amazed to find out that Kansas is not the flattest state (it’s Florida – article here). I wouldn’t have been interested in the geography of Kansas or flat states (or geography at all) unless I had been out seeing, touching and observing a variety of landscapes.

In a sense, this was a field trip that my friends and I took ourselves on disguised as fun. As a child, I looked forward to field trip days. Yes, I did like to miss normal school. Yes, they were fun. But, they were also really formative and informative experiences in my educational career. In middle school, we took a class trip to an African-American history museum and I learned about court cases that were pivotal in the fight for civil rights. in being allowed to move at my own pace, focus on subjects that I found intriguing and learning on my own through experiences, I found my desire to learn enhanced. I didn’t have to sit in a classroom. I could talk. I could ask questions about what I wanted to know and not just what the teacher wanted us to know.

In researching the effects of field trips, I was amazed at how many positives outcomes there are from field trips. Results ranged from simple and obvious, like engagement, socialization, informal learning environments and fun to teaching professionalism (in behavior), creating interests in new professions, classroom inspiration for teachers and connection to community. A full list of effects is available here. I think it would be difficult to refute that field trips are important and beneficial to teachers and students. What is alarming about field trips, is their recent decline. Brian Kisida, Daniel Bowen and Jay Greene wrote an article in Education Next about this phenomenon. Since the early 2000’s the number of students that go to museums, zoos and other cultural places has decreased dramatically. For instance, the Field Museum in Chicago had around 300,000 student guests per year and now has less than 200,000. The Cincinnati Arts Organization has seen a 30% decrease in student attendance between 2002 and 2007.

Reasons for this decline vary from decreased funds for trips to a desire to spend class time on more “meaningful” tasks, like test prep. Field trips have gone from being seen as a way of enhancing and stimulating learning to being seen as a reward to give for good grades, tests scores and good behavior. The group studied the effects of felid trips on students and found that students who had these opportunities retained detail information at higher rates (though they were never prompted to learn details or tested on information) and think more critically about the subjects they experienced in field trip situations than those that did not go on trips.

My question is this: why are we depriving our children of this joy and learning experience? In doing so, we deprive society of critical thinkers, passionate people and lovers of learning. If expenses are the issue, there are a variety of ways to have alternate field trips. If you are learning about ecosystems, go outside and play in a garden. If you’re learning about art, print out pictures and make a mock museum display and allow children to peruse and ask questions. Are standardized tests questions or scores going to be remembered as an adult? Probably not. But a field trip- that time you went to the zoo and the elephant looked at you – that likely will be.


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