Research shows that field trips aren’t just fun and disruptive “extras”; these trips have strong academic and behavioral benefits. A recent study showed that students who went on multiple field trips performed better academically and were less likely to miss school or have behavioral issues than their peers. Waldorf schools value engaging students with the world through hands-on experiences and have specific cultural, community service, and outdoor education trips built into our curriculum to further enrich and enliven our students' education!
This article was originally written by Paige Tutt and published in Edutopia
As a teacher, Elena Aguilar often looked for opportunities to get her students out of the classroom and into different neighborhoods or natural environments. “We did the usual museum trips and science center stuff, but I loved the trips which pushed them into unfamiliar territory,” writes Aguilar, an instructional coach and author. Nudging kids out of their comfort zones, she says, “taught them about others as well as themselves. It helped them see the expansiveness of our world and perhaps inspired them to think about what might be available to them out there.”
Aguilar’s thinking made an impact: 15 years after traveling with her third-grade class to Yosemite National Park, a student contacted Aguilar on Facebook to thank her for the life-changing excursion. “You changed our lives with that trip,” the student wrote. “It's what made me want to be a teacher, to be able to give that same gift to other kids.”
As schools grapple with pandemic-related concerns about balancing in-seat instructional time with non-essentials like trips, new research published in The Journal of Human Resources argues that field trips, and the vital educational experiences that they provide—whether it’s a visit to a local museum or a big commitment like Aguilar’s national park trip—deliver a host of positive social and academic outcomes and are worth the effort.
“The pandemic should not keep schools from providing these essential cultural experiences forever,” asserts Jay P. Greene, one of the study’s co-authors and a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, in an opinion piece for the Daily News. “If schools make culturally-enriching field trips an integral part of the education experience, all students—especially those whose parents have a harder time accessing these experiences on their own—would benefit.”
In the study, researchers assigned more than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students in Atlanta to two groups. One group participated in three to six “culturally-enriching” field trips—visits to an art museum, a live theater performance, and a symphony concert—while students in the control group stayed put in class. The outcome? Kids in the field trip group “scored higher on end-of-grade exams, received higher course grades, were absent less often, and had fewer behavioral infractions,” compared to students in the control group, according to a ScienceDaily brief. Benefits lasted two to three years, Greene writes, and were “most visible when students were in middle school.”
“We are able to demonstrate that a relatively simple intervention—and we consider it pretty low-touch; three field trips in a year, maybe six field trips in two years—can actually have some substantial impacts,” says lead study author Heidi Holmes Erickson in an interview with The 74. “They’re not just limited to social benefits. It shows that smaller interventions can actually have some significant effects on academics as well.”
Field trips aren’t a threat to in-class instruction, Erickson notes, they’re a tool to help bolster engagement and expand students’ horizons. “It's possible to expose students to a broader world and have a culturally enriching curriculum without sacrificing academic outcomes, and it may actually improve academic outcomes,” Erickson says. Far from harming test scores, the researchers found that culturally rich excursions reinforce academics and “students who participated in these field trips were doing better in class.”
Meanwhile, class trips don't need to be elaborate productions to make an impact: small excursions outside the classroom—"low-touch," as the researchers call them—can pack a punch. Here’s how three educators recommend dialing it back with low-stakes options that are both engaging and stimulating for students, but might not require days to prepare and plan:
Make Them Bite-Sized: Instead of allocating an entire day to a field trip, educational consultant Laurel Schwartz takes her classes on micro field trips, or “short outings that can be completed in a single class period.” These real-world encounters, she says, are especially beneficial for English learners and world language students. A micro field trip to a nearby park or around school grounds, for example, can be a great opportunity to “enhance a unit on nature and wildlife while reinforcing vocabulary for senses, colors, and the concepts of quantity and size,” Schwartz writes. “Afterwards, students might write descriptive stories set in the place you visited using vocabulary collected and defined together by the class.”
Try Teacher-Less Trips: To encourage exploration and learning outside of the classroom, former social studies teacher Arch Grieve removes himself from the equation with teacher-less field trips rooted in students’ local communities. Grieve only suggests options that are directly tied to a unit being discussed in class—like attending a talk at a local university or visiting a museum or cultural festival—and offers extra credit to incentivize students. “These trips allow for a greater appreciation of my subject matter than is possible in the school setting, and perhaps best of all, there's little to no planning involved.”
Explore Virtual Options: It may not be as fun as visiting in person, but the Internet makes it possible to visit museums like The National Gallery of London and The Vatican Museums without leaving the school building. Middle school English teacher Laura Bradley likes to search the Museums for Digital Learning website by topic, keyword, and grade level, to find lessons and activities that meet her unique curricular needs. The site grants access to digitized museum collections, 3D models, audio files, documents, images, and videos.
Being outdoors helps children develop the curiosity that is the essence of science later in life. Time in nature helps students cultivate their independence, imagination and sense of wonder, while helping them feel less stressed and more confident in themselves. That’s one reason why outdoor education and play are core components of Waldorf education.
Before she became a famous scientist and inventor, Temple Grandin was a kid who liked to play outside.
“I absolutely loved flying kites,” she said. “We would just make up our own games — go sit in the field and make daisy chains.” All that undirected, childhood play, Grandin believes, amounted to more than goofing off. It was a foundation for her life in the sciences.
Now an animal behavior expert and professor at Colorado State University, Grandin has published more than 60 scientific papers. She is an advocate for people with autism, and in 2010 landed on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In her new children’s book “The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World,” released April 6, she encourages kids to follow her lead into the great outdoors. Time outside, she thinks, helps kindle curiosity that is the essence of science.
“If you are fascinated by clouds or the spots on a ladybug’s back; if you like to split open rocks and see what’s inside, then you’re already an outdoor scientist,” Grandin wrote.
Not enough kids have the opportunities she enjoyed to get dirty, make things and discover their own sense of wonder, she said. “Kids just aren’t outside enough doing it on their own — we need to teach it.”
That’s why she’s asking adults to throw open the doors and send kids outside. Her book, which includes ideas for hands-on projects children can do in nature, joins a chorus of advice from researchers and psychologists who insist kids need outdoor time to thrive.
Here’s why it’s important and how to get started, even if your kid would rather stay on the couch.
How getting outside helps children learn
Until recently, the connection between learning and exposure to nature was poorly understood, wrote Ming Kuo, associate professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a recent review paper. Everyone thought nature was good for kids, she wrote, but they didn’t have robust research to support the thesis.
Now, that’s changing. Analyzing dozens of studies, Kuo found strong evidence that exposure to nature promotes attention and relieves stress. It boosts self-discipline and motivation. It’s tied to physical fitness, and also increases kids’ autonomy. The positive effect doesn’t require trips to faraway places, the research found. Just adding green spaces and trees to urban schools makes a real difference. Exploring natural areas outside of school can really help, though, whether it’s a trip to a city park or time in the closest patch of woods.
“Children are able to be more imaginative and engage in more pretend play when they’re in unstructured nature play areas,” said Kylie Dankiw, a researcher at the University of South Australia and author of a 2020 review paper on the benefits of playing outside.
Kids playing in natural areas engaged in more of what Dankiw called “cognitive play,” where they use their imaginations to create their own games. “Imaginative play is really important for developing social skills, interacting with other people and problem solving,” she said.
Playing in the dirt could lead to making scientific breakthroughs
What should kids do with all that outside time? It can be as simple as laying around in the grass, finding the beauty in insects, plants and clouds. “Just playing freely in and with nature,” Dankiw said, “where the child chooses what they want to do and how they want to play.” Outdoor time, in other words, doesn’t need to be structured.
If you want to offer your kid some inspiration, however, Grandin’s book includes 40 child-friendly projects, some that engage young readers with scientific principles. Kids
can make a model rocket powered by baking soda, for example, or craft a pine cone bird feeder to hang from nearby trees or an apartment window.
You never know where the project might lead. Many scientists, Grandin wrote, have followed their childhood interests to a life of discovery, and she shares some of their stories in the book.
As a child in 19th-century England, Mary Anning joined her siblings to collect seashells near the cliffs of Lyme Regis. That’s where, at 12 years old, she helped uncover the first complete Ichthyosaurus skeleton. The momentous find led to a life in paleontology.
In the United States, a young B.F. Skinner spent his childhood in the woods around his Pennsylvania home, fascinated by the antics of birds, butterflies and chipmunks. After years of study, Skinner’s childhood interests would transform the field of animal behavior.
It’s not that they knew, as children, that their interests would endure a lifetime. Grandin didn’t, either. “I also had no idea that all the stuff I loved doing as a kid would come to inform my life’s work,” Grandin wrote. “I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.” For Grandin and other scientists, though, playing outdoors turned out to be a life-changing opportunity.
Getting your child out the door
Of course, not all kids actually want to go outside. With the right approach, though, psychologist Mary Alvord of Rockville, Maryland, said parents can do a lot to encourage positive experiences in the natural world.
It helps to make it part of your family’s routine. “When my kids were young, they would come home from school, have a snack, then it was like: ‘All right, you have to go outside and play before you start anything else,’” she said. “From the start, it’s about setting the expectation that there is outdoors time.”
If that isn’t already on the family schedule, Alvord suggested parents be open and honest about wanting to make a change. Call a family meeting and make it a conversation, she said.
“Say, ‘We want to start putting in outdoor time — what would you like to do outside? What are some things we could do either as a family, or you could do by yourself, or with a sibling or with friends?’”
When introducing more time outdoors, Alvord said parents may have to do some reframing to get kids on board.
“The frame is: How can you make it appealing and fun?” she said. If it’s cold and rainy outside, that might mean presenting the day as a chance to jump in puddles or look for frogs. Every season, Alvord said, brings changes that can engage children’s curiosity.
If your child says she doesn’t want to go out because she’s doing something else, Alvord suggested giving her a chance to wind down. “Say, ‘Our outdoors time starts in 15 minutes,’” she said, so they can finish a game or wrap up another activity.
Parents’ attitudes count for a lot, Alvord said, which may mean getting out of your own comfort zone even as you’re encouraging your child to head outdoors. Try rethinking your attitude toward “bad” weather or getting dirty, for example. And if you’re hoping to nurture your child’s sense of wonder at the natural world, it could help to reconnect with your own, whether you’re watching the stars, going for a hike or just feeding birds in a nearby park.
“It’s not ‘do as I say,’ it’s ‘do as I do,’” she said. “Kids learn from us by seeing what we do.”