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April 20, 2009

How Much is a Field Trip Worth?

There were some trees for shade,and some sunny areas for warmth. There were wildflowers blooming and a small creek for wading. A picnic table was all set up. Mr. and Mrs. Berry unpacked the picnic lunch,and everyone sat down to enjoy it. “I think we should do this all the time,” said Henry, happily munching on a pickle. Jenny, running off with her kite held high, added,“I agree!”

“Best of all,” said Mr. Berry, “we won’t have far to walk home since we’re in our own backyard!"

Maymont1The paragraph above is a released test item from a standardized 3rd grade test. Granted it is a fairly old test, but it isn't atypical. The family in this story decides to have a picnic in their backyard with a creek and a picnic table. The backyard is big enough to fly a kite in. Depending on your prior experiences, you can to a greater or lesser degree imagine this story. What are those prior experiences that you would need? You might need to see and play around trees in an open space on a warm day. You might need to know what a wildflower is, as opposed to a regular flower, and what it looks like when it blooms. You would need to know what a creek is. You would need to have had a picnic lunch, and understand why Jenny is running with her kite, instead of just standing still like in story books. You would have to know what wading means as opposed to swimming. All of these things are fairly normal activities, if you are not from where my students live.

My students live in 2 bedroom box houses. The only trees are on the edges of the apartment complexes. There is no grass to speak of and definitely not enough room to fly a kite. You could get to be 10 years old and never see a creek or have a picnic... unless you went on a field trip. And there it is. Schools function differently for under privileged kids than middle or upper class kids. We were planning to go on that field trip, the creek field trip, on Tuesday. That field trip was canceled. It is for reasons that have nothing to do with kids and are not important. The consequences are the same: without a field trip my students will never see a creek. Ever.

In a middle-income school, field trips are enrichment. They offer opportunities outside of the regular school experience with the support of a teacher, but not necessarily an experience a middle-income student would never have.  In first grade through fifth grade, kids in my school go on one or two field trips per year. Students in kindergarten usually go on two or three. In preschool we usually go on 5 - 9 field trips per year. We go to the zoo, several parks, a children's museum, the ballet, sometimes an art museum, and a botanical garden. I believe it is these field trips that make the difference between passing a third grade test or failing life. Field trips are about possibility, knowing what is beyond that cracker box house and chain link fence. Field trips are about experiencing the wider world. I hope that in these tough economic times that schools don't decide to cut back on field trips because they are an easy way to save money. The cost to students would be too high.

If you agree please visit the No Child Left Inside website or Richard Louv's website: http://www.childrenandnature.org/ and find out how you can get involved in supporting children's understanding of nature. If you live anywhere near Richmond Virginia consider attending a two day symposium on the topic at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden April 28th and 29th, 2009.

Image:  This is a picture of a tree in the actual park our class was supposed to visit tomorrow.



Thanks for writing this very important post. I think a lot of people don't realize how these children live and how little exposure there is for them to see, feel and experience nature.
We really appreciate you mentioning our No Child Left Inside: Restoring Nature to Early Childhood symposium as well.

I teach middle school, but I believe that field trips are just as valuable for exactly the reasons you mentioned. My kids don't get to do enough of them, because of cost and planning time and a push for higher test scores, and that is such a loss to them. Next year I'll try to find a way to incorporate more.

The truth of this piece makes you want to cry. In his new book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of the strides lower income children make in school and the losses they experience during vacations. Compared to middle & upper income students whose families provide opportunities to see the world when not in school; school IS the window to the ... Read Moreworld for the poor. Our 9 month school system is founded on the 18th century concept of crop rotation. We needed to give the feilds a rest or we'd exhaust them. Young brains lose what they've gained when they lay fallow. We need to seriously reconsider our education system and its underlying assumptions.

I echo the same feelings as the previous comments. I live in a rural, largely impoverished community with a significant number of "Children Left Behind" with a huge racial academic gap. Field trips have been CUT to provide more hours in school preparing for benchmark exams. Sometimes I think we throw the baby out with the bathwater. So we have undertaken a mentoring program involving community people to get these kids exposed to the world outside our small community. These kids that are fortunate to experience this mentoring are blossoming and so are their grades.

I thank you educators for the good work you do and the hard job you have.

We are trying to extend our children's experiences and getting children to walk in the mountains, see rivers and experience different types of light. We are all trying to find out how young is too young for children to leave their parents for a night... this year Year 3 will be out with their teachers! I am oddly nervous to run this but looking at this blog, I am sure it is essential for their development.

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