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Field Trip Tips for Fun and Learning

You've bought the supplies, attended the workshops, organized your student texts, and studied your teacher manuals. Your household is organized and your children motivated to learn. You're ready. Then the phone rings. Your friend, a fellow home schooler, asks, "Where are you going on your first field trip?"

When I think of field trips, I think of the best ever (Hostess Bakery when I was in the seventh grade — there were vats of liquid chocolate everywhere), the worst ever (Forest Lawn Cemeteries in Los Angeles and Glendale the first year I taught school), and one in between (a tour of a tuna fish processing plant — a rather olfactory event!). Before you settle on the field trips you plan to take, consider these tips.

Accommodate the maturity level of your children. For young children, consider visiting places where they can see something happen (like candy making) or touch something wonderful (like a fire truck or a baby lamb) — someplace they don't have to be particularly still or quiet. A trip to the Museum of Natural History — an exciting and fact-filled adventure for the upper elementary child — may be tedious and overwhelming to a first grader. Older children, when paired with a buddy and equipped with a list of intriguing questions, will swarm all over the museum soaking information into those sponge-like brains. Of course, children's museums offer hands-on activities that will delight children of any age.

A note on museums, botanical gardens, and other places where the theory of evolution is likely to be stated as fact: Alert your children to this situation beforehand. Remind them to be polite to museum personnel and tour guides, who are, after all, only repeating the speech they have been given. A thoughtful letter written by a concerned child to the museum's curator may have a positive impact; impertinent, rude, or know-it-all comments will not.

Remember that field trips are supposed to be fun. Don't overload your children with lengthy lists of things to find. Don't "motivate" your child to explore by threatening a comprehensive test of everything he will see. You can evaluate the field trip on the way home be asking your child to tell you what he liked best, what intrigued him the most, and whether he'd like to visit again. The best field trip will elicit this response from your child: "I loved it!"

Avail yourself of local options. It is not necessary to travel great distances or to spend large amounts of money in order to provide an effective and enjoyable field trip experience. Taking a variety of half-day local trips throughout the year, for example, may work better for you than taking one or two full-day trips downtown. A walking trip to the corner bakery will be just as exciting to your children as my visit to Hostess was to me. The bit of sticky bun they receive from the local baker on their way out will be just as memorable--and certainly tastier!--than the package of Twinkies I savored on the bus in 1972. Call around to find which businesses are willing to give tours. Find out when they can provide tours, and be amenable to their schedule. I was once able to take a group of children on a tour of a fast-food restaurant. We arrived early, had an informative and interesting tour before the restaurant opened, and were home before 10:00 A.M. You might also consider the art museum, the city museum or historical society, or a community theater production.

Use the trip to reinforce a study area. If you are making a study of Hawaii, this might not work. (Oh, that it would!) On the other hand, a science chapter on the stars might culminate in a visit to a local observatory. A visit to the library could cap a study of library skills or famous authors or story writing. A study of World War II would be made unforgettable by a trip to see a production of The Diary of Anne Frank.

Be over-prepared. Have a Plan B in the event of rain. Know exactly where you are going, and whether you need to make reservations. Call to confirm the trip a couple of days in advance. My brother-in-law, who is a naval officer, tells the story of a group of kindergartners who showed up bright and early one Monday morning to tour an aircraft carrier. The teacher had failed to call ahead, the ship was closed to tours, and the disappointed children were turned away. A single phone call would have averted the entire situation.

Now what? The hard part is over. You've chosen the spot, organized to a T, gotten the children in the proper cars, and hit the road. And then? Simply enjoy the day. Enjoy the excitement in your children's eyes, the endless talk about new discoveries, the wonder of that simple excursion — the field trip.

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