It was a sunny afternoon, and as Patricia Meyer of Lancaster, N.Y., settled her tribe of second-graders onto the bus to head home from another school field trip, she sighed with relief.

All had gone well. The museum visit was educational yet engaging for the students. Lunch had been eaten, the trash disposed of with ease. Each child had twirled for a few delightful spins on the surprise merry-go-round ride the teachers and parents had planned. And now, head count complete, they were on the bus, headed back to St. Mary’s Elementary School. Success.

Until.

Meyer looked back at three of her charges and noticed something. "They were, well, green around the gills," she says. Before she knew it, even more were feeling bus sick.

"Live and learn," Meyer says a year later. "Maybe we should not have chosen to have the amusement ride just after lunch and just before the long bus ride."

Parents like Meyer, who has been active in her three children’s school for five years, have seen a lot of trips and a lot of situations. Butterfly zoos. Museums. Science centers. Historic sites. Parks and ball fields. Not to mention confused kids, cranky teachers, and parent volunteers who forget they are there to help, not just hang with their own children.

The concept of field trips has been around at least since the 1800s. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote vividly of learning walks her class would take out of their one-room schoolhouse. They’d study rivers, watch the mill work, get out into the world to see how what they were learning in the classroom truly translated.

Today, the field trip is an integral part of every child’s educational experience. It’s also no small feat to pull off. Think of the challenge of taking your own two or three children to, say, the local children’s museum. Then multiply that by as much as 70. Clear minds, clear planning, and solid been-there-done-that input are a must.

When and Where

About 70 percent of parent groups nationally say they provide financial support for school field trips. Some give out a set amount of money per student per grade; others provide "grants" based on requests from teachers or the principal. The decision of where students will go is almost always in the teachers’ hands. But PTOs can play a role there, too, by gathering feedback to help plan for the future and ensure that the money is well-spent. Gathering feedback might consist simply of asking chaperones, parents of children in the class, and the teacher how the trip went and asking the teacher whether she would do it again. Or you might create a more formal process with a written evaluation form.

In some cases, parent groups are able to set a broader direction. For example, if the district is focusing on culture and literacy, a PTO might allocate money to fund field trips that fulfill that aim. Because different grade levels have different needs, however, it helps to stay flexible and avoid hard-and-fast rules.

Either way, don’t be shy about making suggestions—some will be accepted and other won’t—and also tactfully letting teachers know when a field trip you volunteered for did not meet expectations.

"I always hope the kids go on more trips that are a little more special," says CoCo Glass, mother of four children in the Edina, Minn., school system. "I like to think that most kids get to go to the zoo already with their families. I like field trips to be somewhere out of the usual, and somewhere that shows them or teaches them something new."

Of course, that same old local zoo can provide plenty of new and exciting opportunities when visited on a school trip. Behind-the-scenes access to some of the animals or private educational sessions with a guide are just a couple of possibilities. More important than whether the site is brand-new or simply seen in a different light, though, is that it be kid-focused. "It isn’t enough that adults like it," says Glass. "You need a destination with guides who talk on the kids’ level, who make it click for them."

Getting On (and Off) the Bus

Once the location is booked, the buses hired, and the permission slips collected, the chaperones step in. Because the teachers do the preparation and planning, they also generally oversee chaperone selection. Still, parent group leaders should be familiar with how that happens. Is anemail or flyer sent soliciting volunteers? Are the names of all interested parties put in a hat, with the final list of chaperones chosen by lottery? Or can teachers simply call parents directly if they want their help? What happens if there aren’t enough volunteers?

There’s no set way for it to go; every school or district is different. If your group helps pay for the trips, though, you should monitor the process so you can answer questions from parents. Find out from the teacher what she expects of chaperones, and make sure that information gets communicated. Likewise, make sure that parent chaperones understand ahead of time where they’re going, why they’re going, what’s expected of them, and what they should expect of the children.

Meyer recommends giving each chaperone a written list of the names of each child she is responsible for. And if you’re a chaperone, she says, "Refer to it constantly. There is no such thing as too many head counts." Meyer, Gomes, and Glass all recommend that chaperones be responsible for groups of no more than six children.

Meyer also believes a packed, disposable lunch is the only real option on a field trip. "Don’t bring along anything that cannot be thrown away," she says. "Then everyone eats, it all gets cleaned up, and you’re done. Nothing left behind."

Maura Gomes of Bedford, N.H., can appreciate that idea. Last spring her third-grade son, Jake, came home from an exciting field trip to Boston with all sorts of stories. One thing was missing, though: his school backpack.

"I called the museum and they had it, but they couldn’t mail it to me," Gomes says. "And I can understand that. They’d be mailing backpacks all day. It’s almost a two-hour ride each way, and yet he had things he needed right away in there. We ended up getting one of the museum employees to meet my sister-in-law in a Boston train station, and she got it to us."

Codes of Conduct

Successful field trip preparation is also about setting expectations. Meyer talks to her own children about rules and regulations and how they’re expected to behave. She has the same discussion with any children she is responsible for as a chaperone.

"It’s particularly important with your own children," Meyer says. "Nothing is more annoying than when a chaperone’s child is acting up and that chaperone does nothing about it. I tell my children I expect them to behave well and to obey me. I remind them I’m not just their mom there, I’m the chaperone and I need their full cooperation."

Chaperone duties can change depending on the age of the children in their charge. "When they are little," says Glass, "it is more of a physical issue. You have to physically guide them. Get them from one stop to another. Help them have their lunch or get to a bathroom and back. Have them at the right place at the right time. Get them on the bus. With older kids, it’s more about controlling attitudes. I’m a stickler about rules and manners, and this is what you deal with on field trips with older kids."

Many schools include rules for field trip behavior in the school handbook. If your school doesn’t have formal rules, helping develop them can be a good role for the parent group.

For younger children, simplicity can be key. Meyer and her school use coordinating T-shirts to keep the kids easy to spot and in one group. "We have the gym shirts that say St. Mary’s that all the kids have to have, so on some field trips, we ask them all to wear them," she says. Some teachers in her school have done "paint your T-shirt" art lessons before field trips, even having each subgroup within the field trip paint their own "team colors." Simply asking that each child wear a certain color shirt—blue or red, for example—can also be effective.

From the parents to the teachers to the kids, everyone gets excited about field trips. It’s a thrill to get out of the usual surroundings and take in education in an unusual way. But the true goal is for children to have fun in a different learning environment, to have their interest piqued about a subject in a way that it hasn’t been before. With good planning and prepared volunteer leaders, field trips can be educational and memorable for everyone involved.


Oh, Behave! A Primer for Parent Chaperones

The Edina, Minn., school system has a program to teach children about proper behavior, both in and out of school, says parent volunteer CoCo Glass. Before every field trip, students are reminded of the schoolwide values program. It’s also important, though, for chaperones to know the proper way to behave. Below are some basic rules for the next time you’re the one on the bus.

  • Remember that you’re responsible for all of the kids who have been assigned to you, not just your own child. Don’t turn the trip into a school-funded family outing.
  • Count heads, then count them again.
  • Tell your charges what your expectations are—which should in turn be the same as the teacher’s. You are an extension of the teacher when you’re a chaperone.
  • Unless you’ve found out differently ahead of time, discipline is the teacher’s domain. If a student is misbehaving, touch base with the teacher as soon as possible. You could say, for example, "I’m having trouble keeping Sam in line this afternoon. Can you speak to him or give me some suggestions for how to handle the situation?"