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More "Do" for Less "Dough": Inexpensive Field Trips Enhance Learning

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With shrinking school budgets and rising costs, field trips can be the kind of "extra" that is the first to go. Seasoned educators, however, recognize that these trips are the stuff that learning and memories are made of. Here teachers share some ways to get around money issues to provide inexpensive trips that are both meaningful and memorable. Included: Advice to help you organize great field trips on a shoestring!

"Middle school students learn more from experiences than anything else," Robert G. Wilson told Education World. "Our philosophy is that, especially with middle school students, field trips are a very cost-effective form of learning. I don't ever recall having been turned down on a trip request."

Setting Up Informative But Inexpensive Field Trips

How can you organize a meaningful field trip but manage its costs?
  • Stay close to home to minimize transportation expenses.
  • Take advantage of your location. Consider potential trips to local parks, hiking/biking trails, libraries, hospitals, institutions of higher learning, businesses, landfills, post offices, waterways or bodies of water, farms, and more.
  • Relate field trips directly to curriculum for greatest impact.
  • Maximize the effectiveness of field trips with corresponding activities before and after the trips themselves.
  • Establish a partnership with a service organization. Students can learn while they help others.
  • Don't overlook your own backyard. What organizations or businesses will come to you for presentations at the school in lieu of the "field trip"?
  • Go online when an actual trip isn't feasible. Many organizations offer virtual tours of their facilities. (See the end of this article for a few suggestions.)


The school board and administration of North Winneshiek Middle School in Decorah, Iowa, are supportive of Wilson's efforts to enable his math and science students to learn by doing. They do not limit the number of trips that his classes can take during the school year. Wilson takes full advantage of all opportunities that come his way. He and his students go on about one field trip each month. This September actually featured three excursions!


Students sell magazines each fall to raise supporting funds for their field trips. To make the most of the travel money, Wilson selects free or inexpensive locations such as the Mississippi River, Effigy Mounds National Monument, Luther College, area rock quarries, the local landfill, a nearby bike trail, eco-friendly farms (organic producers), alternative energy users (such as wind and solar power), and more.

"Most of the trips fit in either with what the students will or have explored," explained Wilson. "Iowa history is part of the sixth grade curriculum, so many of the trips deal at least partially with that. Others are tied in with science. However, we also go places just to give students exposure to new things. The Renaissance Festival is one example."

In addition to relating field trips to the curriculum, Wilson makes them more effective with activities students must complete and submit while on the trip. Some of those activities include "scavenger hunts" on paper or journals that are used throughout the day. Students' responses to those activities have helped him to fine tune a field trip for the next group.

"We have even had lunch challenges," said Wilson. "By that I mean we challenge students to bring the most environmentally friendly lunch they can think of. They do a great job! 'Lunchables' are not allowed. The packaging costs more than the food and produces a lot of trash -- just another little lesson for them!"

Wilson has no doubt that many of the best memories from school days involve field trips. He has had former students talk to him about trips that he took with classes more than 20 years ago. With such an impact, he feels that the trips his students take are worth the effort and expense. Saving time and cutting down on paperwork, the school asks parents to sign an all encompassing "field trip permission slip" which covers all of the year's excursions.

"Not every trip has to be tied to the curriculum," Wilson added. "Sometimes a trip as a reward and just for fun is worth it. We have gone bowling and to a local community recreation center just for those reasons. It is wise to keep your eyes and ears open because you never know when an opportunity will appear or what it will be."


Wilson's colleague Birgitta Meade, a seventh and eighth grade Earth science and life science teacher, is known as the "Goddess of Field Trips" among her peers. She typically takes her students on eight to ten trips each year.

To keep costs in check, Meade designs trips that include only the expense of transportation. Locations frequented by her students include a local quarry for fossil hunting, the seed preservation organization Seed Savers Exchange, an orchard, renewable energy homesteads, a sanitary landfill, an historic prairie wetland, a creek for water quality testing, 4-H camp, and others.

"Our field trips are always curriculum-related, and we have at least one field trip per year related to the middle school 'theme' for the year," Meade stated. "This year's theme is Japan -- I don't know how we'll pull that one off! Everything else is related to what I am teaching in science class at that moment."

Meade obtains grant money for class trips when possible, and she schedules the trips so that no substitute is required in her absence. This sometimes means that math students "go along for the ride." The locations she chooses are close to the school, and spreading the word to the community about what the students gain through trips to these local sites has helped Meade maintain her funding.

"I make sure the school board and the public understand the value of the trips by presenting at board meetings and displaying the results of the student learning whenever I can," said Meade. "We have excellent support and a tradition of many field trips at our school."

Students in Meade's classes have assignments that are related to their field trips. She discusses upcoming trips frequently to generate interest and "pump them up" for their new learning experiences. The quarry is her favorite trip.

"I take just one class at a time for safety reasons and borrow helmets and rock hammers from the local college so the kids feel like real geologists," Meade explained. "I teach them about what they are looking for in advance, and they can take home as many fossils as they can carry."


"Middle school kids learn best by being actively engaged in their work, and hands-on collaborative projects are especially engaging to them," Bill Ivey observed. "Field trips often make it easier to set up such projects and make resources -- both static and alive -- available to the kids. That would be difficult if not impossible to bring to the classroom. Also, although kids thrive on structure, once that structure is in place, they also thrive on breaks in the routine."

Stoneleigh-Burnham School is an independent school for girls in grades 7-12 in Greenfield, Massachusetts; its middle school includes grades 7 and 8. The school charges parents an activities fee, which covers field trips as well as year-opening and year-ending special trips. To conserve those resources, the school selects destinations for field trips that are as close as possible and sets limits on the frequency of the trips.

"Service work is mandatory in our middle school," Ivey described. "Although not a 'conventional' field trip, the activity gets kids off campus weekly. One charitable organization is hoping to collaborate with us on an oral history project, which would connect strongly to the humanities curriculum. The kids have chosen to focus their work for now on the local women's shelter, animal shelter, and food bank."

A fine arts teacher, Ivey takes the school's rock band on a field trip every spring to record its own CD. He organizes about three additional trips during the school year, and they include art museums, theaters, and studios. Students take class bonding and leadership training trips that are considered essential for school unity and student self-awareness.

"Most field trips are a direct outgrowth of student ideas and student questions," said Ivey. "It is hard to predict what exactly we will be doing this year, but I know our trips will support our curriculum. For example, we might take a field trip this October to the headquarters of one or more candidates to see a campaign in action and to talk to the staffers about their candidates' positions."

Ivey tries to view each field trip from the perspective of the students. Though some field trips are all-school adventures that are related to other aspects of the curriculum, others simply expose the kids to culture. Those planned by Ivey are often spawned by books, movies, and special topics that his students are studying.

"Field trips that stem from student needs and student concerns are often the most successful," Ivey added. "While students certainly appreciate a good time, deep down they also know their time is valuable and they are in school to learn. Therefore, they trust us to enable that to happen."


Field Trip Ideas
Borrow a super idea for an inexpensive field trip from other educators. Some suggestions featured here are a picnic, bicycle day, and trip to the post office.

Virtual Field Trips

If the budget doesn't have room for a real trip to a museum, zoo, or gallery, go online for the next best thing, a virtual tour. Here are a few excellent resources to get you started.

Tramline Virtual Field Trips
You will find field trips for all grades and in all subjects at this site. Virtual Field Trips also provides a unique built-in frame in which students may move forward or back among selected Web pages.

Virtual Tours
From the Utah Education Network, this site not only has great online tours, but it also offers a tool for teachers to use to create their own.

Smithsonian Institution
For those who can't visit the museums of the Smithsonian, this Web site affords a glimpse of the exhibitions and collections online.

American Treasures of the Library of Congress
What are the top treasures held by the Library of Congress? Find out about those documents and many more.

National Gallery of Art
Check out the beautiful collection of art at the National Gallery, and don't miss the kids' section where students can make and interact with art.

The San Diego Zoo
Discover the wild creatures of this zoo and how its staff cares for them. This site has an excellent "kid territory."

The Nine Planets
Go beyond the limits of our planet for a field trip that couldn't even be achieved by plane, much less by school bus. Tour the planets and other bodies of the universe with Bill Arnett's The Nine Planets.



Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World




Updated 4/15/2012