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Bring Back In-Person Field Trips. Here’s Why

Just as peak field trip season was set to get underway in the spring of 2020, the pandemic hit. Schools, and the cultural institutions and countless other organizations that normally welcome K-12 students for experiential learning, closed their doors.

“The pandemic was absolutely devastating for field trips. They went off a cliff, even when schools went back to in-person,” said Susie Wilkening, principal of Wilkening Consulting, a Seattle-based audience research firm.

Statistics bear this out. In the spring of 2023, Wilkening Consulting and the American Alliance of Museums conducted a survey of 340 museum directors from around the country on post-pandemic visitation. Forty percent of respondents reported that they continued to experience lower on-site visitation from K-12 teachers and students.

Several factors may be keeping schools from venturing back to in-person field trips. Virtual field trips rose in popularity during the pandemic, allowing students to glimpse educational sites as far-flung as the Egyptian pyramids or the Louvre art museum in Paris from the comfort of their homes or classrooms—and those opportunities still exist.

Logistics and funding may also be preventing schools from returning to on-site field trips. Educational researchers have suggested that some schools prioritize putting resources toward activities that may improve student achievement on standardized tests over experiences like field trips, whose results aren’t as quantifiable. That may especially be the case for schools struggling to help students recover from pandemic-era learning declines.

The argument for doing field trips again

But a growing body of research, advocacy from some district-level officials, and anecdotes from students provide compelling reasons for bringing back in-person field trips.

Lin Tajeken Jeufack, a high school junior at Kenwood High School in Maryland’s Baltimore County schools, vividly recalls how a 6th grade field trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore that offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse into husbandry of aquatic animals planted an idea in her head about one day becoming a marine biologist.

Lin described testing the water in the animal tanks, peering under a microscope in an onsite laboratory at the aquarium, and learning about a profession she knew little about. The 16-year-old, who is now enrolled in her school’s International Baccalaureate program, volunteers at a local hospital, and says she’s leaning toward majoring in math in college, though she hasn’t ruled out a career in marine biology. Lin still welcomes the opportunity to attend in-person field trips—like a recent outing to the Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute, an art museum that features a “Giant Heart” exhibit that allows visitors to walk through the organ’s enormous, lifelike chambers.

“I think students feel safer now [post-pandemic],” said Lin. “We have a really tough course load; we’re always working. It’s good for us to get away from school for a little while.”

Field trips are especially beneficial for disadvantaged students

The lasting benefits of field trips don’t necessarily register in students’ consciousness at the moment of the visit. But these experiential outings have been proven to increase student interest in, knowledge about, and motivation to study subject matter to which they’re exposed, according to a sweeping, decade-old report by Ohio University researchers on field trips. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to reap the biggest benefits from these experiences, as they are less likely to have the opportunity to engage in these activities outside of school-sponsored trips.

That’s not lost on Kadee Anstadt, superintendent/CEO of Washington Local Schools in Toledo, Ohio, who’s committed to ensuring that the students in her high-poverty district take field trips routinely.

“We are quite intentional now about the breadth of experiences we are offering our students,” said Anstadt, who recently established what she refers to as “superinten-dates,” in which she personally takes groups of students on field trips they likely wouldn’t otherwise experience.

“As an urban district, our kids sometimes don’t get to see their larger community. We’ve been to the Detroit Auto Show, to hear a Holocaust survivor, experienced the Toledo Opera, and taken the entire junior class to the Henry Ford Museum,” she said.

Some of the field trips students in the Washington Local Schools take are culturally enriching; others, practical. The district has developed a partnership with two local YMCA branches in which every 2nd grader receives eight water safety lessons.

“This ensures our kids know the dangers of a pool, pond, or lake, and also know how to get help if they need it. Some learn to swim during this time. For so many, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a pool,” said Anstadt.

Since last year, more than 1,000 of the district’s approximately 7,000 students have received the lessons.

Fish hatcheries, hiking, ice fishing, and Native American landmarks

Laurie Barron, superintendent of the Evergreen school district in Montana, shares a philosophy on experiential field trips similar to Anstadt’s—but with vastly different surroundings to explore.

“We are in northwestern Montana bordering Glacier National Park, a recreation mecca,” said Barron, reeling off a number of recreational and cultural resources available within a quick bus trip: fish hatcheries, hiking, ice fishing, skiing, forestry opportunities, and Native American landmarks.

Barron says administrators aim for younger students in the K-8 district to go on between two and four trips per year, a number that increases to six to eight trips by the time students reach 8th grade.

“We love for them to have several off-campus opportunities each year, experiencing the great west Montana outdoors. It’s very relevant and easy to connect that to our curriculum and content,” Barron said. “And students remember a lot more that way than just reading about places in a book.”

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