5 virtual school trips you must try

One headteacher explains how she is using lockdown to take children to The Great Barrier Reef, Hogwarts and even outer space

Grainne Hallahan

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The traditional school trip with a coach and packed lunch (that we obviously ate within minutes of setting off) is but a distant memory to teachers at the moment. 

However, some schools have found an online work-around: the virtual school trip.

Don’t worry – there are no VR glasses needed here. In fact, there is hardly any technology required from the school or student. This is why Atlantic Primary Portland, part of the Aspirations Academies Trust, decided to utilise the abundance of newly released virtual tours on offer from museums and attractions around the world.

Melissa Heppell, principal of Atlantic Primary Portland, says: “We realised we could bring the world into the living rooms of our children through digital tours and field trips.”

But how hard is it to set up? Not hard at all, says Heppell. 

“We send out information about the trip beforehand, and then the link will go 'live' as scheduled by us in Google Classroom,” she says. “Throughout the visit, the teacher can pose questions and set activities for the children to engage with.”

But what about that social element of a trip? Well, to try and recreate that, Heppell also includes a live chat thread for them to discuss what they find.

So what are Heppell’s absolute must-dos to make your school trip work when you’re all behind a screen?

Do recreate that pre-trip excitement

The anticipation of the trip is half the fun. Heppell recommends you try and replicate that for your virtual trip too. 

“We try and recreate that pre-trip buzz in the days building up to the visit,” she says. “For success, I would say you need to provide children with a ‘what to pack’ list."

You could also try assigning buddies, setting pre-reading, or even wait to reveal where you're going and give clues so your class can guess the destination.

"You need them to feel like they are off on an adventure,” says Heppell.

Do show them how to visit

You might think the visiting part is the easy bit. After all, isn't it obvious? You click on stuff. You read it. Find things out.

No, it's not that easy. As all teachers know, children sometimes need gentle nudges in the right direction.

“Things like a scavenger hunt, or a fact-finding questionnaire can really help students read with purpose," Heppell says. "And we also set creative activities – for example, sketch your favourite item in the exhibit.”

After the visit, this type of guided discussion can continue, and include parents too. Heppell suggests using school online learning platforms like Tapestry or Seesaw, to give children and parents a chance to share their experiences of the trip.

Do include everyone

For many parents, home learning is taking place at unconventional times and in unconventional ways. Uptake at Heppell’s school is high, with around 87 per cent of students taking part in the trips "live". However, she warns schools to ensure that all students will have a chance to access the virtual trip.

“Some families may find it hard to engage at the specified time,” she says. “So to facilitate this, the visit will stay ‘live’ for a few days to ensure those who have work commitments etc are able to access the resources at a later date and time.”

Heppell also sees these trips as a way to bring together the students learning at home and the children still attending school.

“Ensuring these trips are available to all students, at home and in school, with an opportunity for whole class discussion, allows us to bring all students together so we can continue to harness the sense of community that we have built at Atlantic.”

Hopefully, you're raring to go – so the obvious next question is where? 

1. The Great Barrier Reef

A school trip where you go scuba diving and explore a coral reef is way beyond the realms of possibility for most schools.

However, now with the wonder of Google Earth, it is a possible for anyone with an internet connection. 

“Listening to and hearing from pupils who are discovering a new underwater world is fascinating,” says Heppell. “Our students were simply delighted to explore what was hidden beneath the waves.”

Once you "arrive" at the reef, Heppell says she would encourage teachers to let their students go off and explore.

“Pupils loved the freedom to dive into the areas they wanted and happily shared encouragement with friends. You read messages on the live chat like: 'Go and look at the shipwreck!' or 'Look up! I think there’s a shark!’,” she says.

2. Longleat Safari Park

A trip to the zoo is so essential that it is arguably a rite of passage for all schoolchildren.

However, having now done a virtual trip, Heppell would argue that visiting online is an even better option.

“Although visiting a zoo in person is a wonderful adventure, being able to visit online actually offers you even more,” she says. “From using the virtual tours, students can be quickly transported to explore locations in greater depth.”

What’s great about doing the trip online, says Heppell, is that as well as seeing the animals in their enclosures, students can use the internet to explore more than what is just written up on the sign by the exhibit.

How does the animal hunt? What is life like in the country it lives in? What prehistoric creature did it descend from? Every question will have an answer at their fingertips.

3. Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library

This exhibition, which appeals to all Potter-fans, would have been inundated with visitors this spring had coronavirus not closed the doors of the British Library.

However, now visitors can step into the world-famous library leaving a virtual footprint instead.

Hosted on Google Arts and Culture, visitors can look around the exhibition looking at the work of JK Rowling and its links to magic. Curated by Julian Harrison, the online version of the exhibition allows children to explore the different "rooms".

Included in the exhibition is a celestial globe, Leonardo Da Vinci's notebook, and the oldest atlas of the night sky, as well as a guide to "muggle magic" and a look at the artistry behind the illustrations of the novels.

4. National Theatre

Many schools find the cost involved with a theatre trip too prohibitive to justify a visit – so the opportunity to watch some of the National Theatre’s best performances shouldn’t be passed up.

Choices range from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night and King Lear, as well as literary adaptations such as Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Peter Pan and Jane Eyre.

For younger children, you can also watch adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale created specially for younger audiences and suitable for primary schools.

And you don’t just get the performance – teachers can make use of the learning resources too. There are rehearsal insights from the actors, and you can use the scene-by-scene selections to lead a class discussion in the chat.

Oh, and a school trip favourite: word searches. 

5. International Space Station

Outer space is not your usual destination for a school trip – for starters you would struggle to get a coach company willing to supply spacesuits and oxygen.

However, this is one that makes perfect sense when you can visit virtually.

Students can begin by watching the videos about the space station, and then make use of Google Street View where you can explore the International Space Station.

And what next for your budding astronauts? Well, how about some Minecraft education activities – a range of different challenges all available for free here.

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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