Skip to Content

Over the River and Through the Woods

To the art museum, the state capitol, or even the grocery store we go! With money tight and testing pressures mounting, teachers are finding new ways to make field trips fly.

By Mary Ellen Flannery

Annette Hanson is nervous. This spring morning, she’ll take 28 high school freshmen, and an equal number of fourth-graders, to a Boise River offshoot. She’s done it before and never had so much as a wet knee. But today, the creek is running around like a sugar-happy toddler, bouncing off its banks, giggling at its strength. As winter’s snow melts in the hills above, headlines warn, “More flooding on the way for Treasure Valley.”

When Tom Frew, a field biologist with Idaho Fish & Game, shows up to Hanson’s biology classroom at Timberline High in Boise, he asks her, “How’re we doing this morning?”

“Oh, you know…” she replies nervously.

“Oh yeah!” he grins. “It’s rocking and rolling out there!”

But this is the nature of field trips. They’re a little unpredictable, maybe a little nerve-wracking, certainly lots of work, and yet, completely worth it.

“You hope that you can inspire their interest, and that they’ll see that science is more than what happens in the classroom,” Hanson muses. “At the end of the year, they always tell me that these lessons are what they remember best.”

Unfortunately, as education funds disappear and pressure to perform on high-stakes tests grows, it’s getting harder for teachers to find the time or money for these walks in the woods. What a mistake, argues Kathleen Carroll, a former science teacher and author of A Guide to Great Field Trips. “When we get so bound up into thinking we need to prepare students for the test, students suffer—and teachers get burned out. Their life blood is sucked out of them.”


Break out of the classroom, scale mountains and span the globe. Go Virtual! Here's how...

A host of education studies has shown students actually do better on tests when they have “a full interactive experience of learning,” Carroll says. Plus, a great field trip also will help students develop an interest in learning, a “sense of awe and curiosity” that pays off in the long run, she adds. And, researchers believe outside experiences may have the power to help close the achievement gaps. So even with money tight and testing pressures mounting, teachers are finding creative, often close-to-home ways to get students out of the building and learning in new ways. “People are cutting off their own noses if they think they have to give up field trips for test scores,” Carroll says.

Hanson knows these pressures well. Her school used to pay for two trips with buses for each teacher each year. Now it pays for just one. Plus, as Idaho introduces its new standards-based state science test, the heat is on. Her solution? Take just two hours, or one block period, and walk a mile to the nearest body of water for a hands-on lesson on habitats. The total cost? A few calories and a couple of gray hairs.

Field trips easily can be part of a standards-based curriculum—and they often do a more effective job than the typical textbook, teachers say. In Oklahoma, fourth- and fifth-graders must learn how state government works, so elementary school teacher LeeAnne Powers asked herself: Aren’t the halls of the Capitol the best place for that lesson? Powers introduced her students to state legislators who told them in person how laws are made. They stopped at the state historical museum to learn more about early settlers (another state standard). And, as they traveled, they kept track of mileage and landforms.

"The students will be tested on all of [this] and more, so why not give them an experience that they will remember?", she asks.

And, for many kids, especially poor ones, the lessons go far beyond the standards. Tracy Jones teaches at a Title 1 elementary school in Southern California. On a trip last year to a San Diego aquarium, her students saw firsthand how animals inhabit different environments -- a standard of learning -- but, even more exciting, many also got their first glimpse of the ocean. "You should have heard the kids as the bus came over the hill and they saw the sun shining on the Pacific Ocean," Jones says.

Providing these kinds of experiences may be one of the keys to closing the achievement gaps, suggests Harvard economist Ronald Ferguson. "Achievement gaps are not facts of nature. They are mostly because of differences in life experiences," he said in a recent Harvard Education Letter interview. "We've got to figure out how to get all kids the kinds of experiences that really maximize access to middle-class skills."

And it doesn't have to be expensive. Minnesota high school teacher Monique Ami simply takes her English-language learners to the library and signs them up for cards. And California teacher Samantha Garrity goes someplace even more familiar—the mall! Her students have to solve math problems dealing with percentages, and the field trip costs about a dollar per kid.

But field trips can’t just rely on great weather and setting. What happens before—and after—are equally important. If you’re not a list person, pick up your pen anyway. Along with permission forms, transportation, and meal plans, jot down a purpose statement to help focus you and the kids. What should they learn? Pre-activities such as vocabulary lists also help.

For Hanson, the lessons on habitats start weeks before the trip. Then, that morning, she divides her class into teams—the Insect People, the Water Testers, etc.—and hands out detailed packages of maps, guides, and other instructions. They’ll meet with Carrie Prange’s Riverside Elementary fourth-graders on the banks of Loggers Creek, where the freshmen will lead the younger students through lab tasks. She also stresses two rules.

Rule No. 1: “Remember, you are role models!”

Rule No. 2: “Be kind to animals and all living things.”

Yes, yes, her kids nod. They’ve heard it before. They kick back their lab stools and leave impatiently for the walk.

Other successful trip-takers plan just as carefully. Jones, the aquarium-goer, spent a month identifying local tide pool animals and explaining symbiotic relationships and the food chain. Before the trip, she went on her own, writing down a list of the animals in each tank so that the parent chaperones would be able to direct their group’s attention.

Back in Idaho, on the creek banks, the forecast proves true. Icy water screams past, as a long-haired freshman in a black Metallica shirt points to a cedar tree parting the icy flow.

“That used to be three feet from the shore!” he says.

The kids work diligently on their own tasks: Measuring the water temperature (a cool 40 degrees); checking bottom conditions (a tad silty); collecting plants and insects; and making note of all life. Canadian geese are mocked. Too common! For a skinny blue heron wheeling leisurely above, talk ceases. Then, with scribbled notes and neat measurements, they put together a profile of the habitat. In a word, it is perfect—for baby trout, that is.

Hours later, heading back to class with completely dry students, Hanson will smile and say, “I love doing these trips!”

The following day, back in the lab, her class will examine their loot under a dissecting microscope (the leeches are a big hit), map their findings, and discuss what they learned about the relationship between wildlife and habitat. Such post-trip assessments are critical, Carroll advises.

Days later, Hanson will receive even more validation. “I wanted to let you know that last week’s trip was great for Joe!” begins a letter from a parent. “[Yesterday, he drove us to the river path] to share with us the high river level, the heron ‘family’ nest…and teach us about the nitrate tests. Joe has enjoyed science more than I can remember. Thank you!” 

Break out of the classroom, scale mountains and span the globe. Go Virtual! Here's how...

Send comments on this story to

Published in:

Published In