What Happened to Field Trips?

Have you ever wondered, “Whatever happened to field trips? Do kids still go on field trips?”

When I was a teacher a long time ago, we took our third-grade students on several field trips throughout the year. From what I can recall, there were around 5 total, including a big day trip to downtown Chicago, which was the culminating trip for our Chicago unit. (At the time, the history of Chicago was a required part of the curriculum in Illinois.)

This field trip was a lot of fun because we took the kids to the Sears Tower (now, sadly, called the Willis Tower) and a bus tour of the city. Although as a teacher I wasn’t a big fan of field trips, simply because they are hectic, I felt they were a value-add to the kids’ learning experience.

The fellow grade level teachers and I planned the field trips (where to go and when) together and then ran it past our principal for approval, almost always without any objection. Since our school district was in a fairly affluent area, there typically weren’t any issues with field trip cost or frequency.

Nowadays, field trips are not as often nor as common. There are a few reasons that come to mind:

1. Field trips are costly. Depending on the locale of the field trip and whether or not a bus needs to be chartered, the cost per child can run between $8-20. For charter schools and smaller districts that do not have their own buses, the cost for the transportation alone is often a large percent of the total field trip cost.

Couple that with the actual entry fee for the destination, the cost can balloon up quickly. Our kids go to a small pre-school that doesn’t have buses so the last field trip they went on cost $25 each–$15 for the entry fee to a strawberry farm and $10 for the bus. Fortunately, they don’t go on trips that often, because as you can imagine, it can become cost-prohibitive. And what about kids whose parents lost their job(s)?

See also this video about organizing a field trip:

2. Field trips take too much (instructional) time. Usually the field trips we planned for our students took the bulk of the day. We would normally plan to leave school at around 9-9:30 and return around 2:30-3:00. If there are around 5 field trips per year, that quickly adds up to around 5 (lost) instructional days. At least, that’s how some look at it. And then what if you feel your child could be better off skipping a grade? Would you be fine with lost instructional days?

3. There seems to be a perception that field trips do not have a high ROI (return on investment). These days some schools are making the school days longer, cutting out the arts, PE, and field trips (all the “peripheral stuff”) in order to add traditional instructional time. While I don’t necessarily disagree with that approach completely, I believe that field trips, if planned in alignment with what’s being taught, can be a very powerful learning experience that cannot be replicated or emulated through traditional classroom teaching.

Some instructional leaders and education policymakers say that there isn’t any time for field trips when students aren’t meeting standards. Again, carefully planned out field trips that are correlated to what students are learning in the classroom can become the most meaningful learning students experience.

What better way to understand all the history of Chicago than to visit the historic Water Tower and see for one’s self the vastness of the Windy City than from the observatory at the Sears Tower? What better way to learn about and appreciate art than by visiting the Art Institute of Chicago?

So, yes, instructional time is limited, and I’m not a fan of going on a field trip just because it’s a “fun” thing to do. However, a field trip can be fun AND an incredible teaching/learning opportunity if planned and executed thoughtfully and when the supply lists are tackled appropriately. How awesome is that for kids?

Does your child’s school have field trips? If so, what is your thought about them? Is there a reasonable return on investment?