When you’re taking children out on a school trip, there’s always a moment where you become acutely aware that the comforting four walls of your classroom aren’t there anymore. On the one hand, you’re swapping out your daily structure and certainty – and as a teacher, that can feel daunting. But on the other, you’re giving your students a glimpse of the world beyond school – and beyond their usual routine.
And no matter how much of an expert you are at making Tuesday afternoon maths lessons fun, the irony is, in years to come these times out of school might well be the ‘schooldays’ they remember.
Despite the challenges of paperwork, stress and travel sickness, school trips offer wonderfully diverse benefits to children.
Firstly, it’s a cliché for a reason but trips can bring academic learning to life. Floating without clear real-world context, school can sometimes struggle to communicate relevance to children – but taking them out to see whole museums or exhibitions devoted to the thing they’ve been studying can create a sense of scale and importance it’s otherwise hard to grasp. I’ll never forget a child in one of the first classes I ever taught turning to me during a museum trip to see a range of Egyptian artefacts and saying with absolute solemnity: “You mean it’s all TRUE?”
Up until this point he had genuinely struggled to differentiate the historical facts he was learning from the stories he was reading in his English lessons. It was only in seeing this learning outside school that the penny dropped.
In fact, this strange sense of reality is often able to pack an emotional punch too. There’s learning about the Blitz from books and videos, and then there’s standing in the grave silence of the ruins of Coventry’s old cathedral surrounded by evidence of its impact. It’s not that this is somehow a more valuable experience than in-school learning, more that it helps to make sense of it. And the unfamiliar can inspire a sense of awe and depth of feeling that the every day and the familiar often can’t.
All of which means that the best trips should help your students head back to school caring more about the subjects they’ve been studying.
Of course, for a significant minority of pupils, trips can have an even greater impact. There is nothing more likely to show you a different side to the children you teach than an environment far beyond the classroom. I have seen sullen, impossible to interest children blossom when taken to a castle or an art gallery for the first time, as a life-long interest suddenly begins. There’s an audible 'click' sometimes, as a child discovers their thing, and it’s our duty to give them the widest range of experiences possible so that they all have the chance to get there.
And it’s worth remembering that whilst trips with direct links to the curriculum are fantastic, a trip doesn’t always have to have an academic learning objective to have value. It can be both eye-opening and humbling to see different aspects to children sometimes rendered one-dimensional by the daily grind of tests and attainment that modern education insists upon, and often it’s the trips that simply focus on life-enhancing experiences that set these different aspects free.
I have been on residentials, for instance, where the class clown, who spends most of her time in school in trouble for chatting, is the one to cheer up a roomful of homesick peers. I’ve seen chaotic children with non-existent self-esteem relax when interacting with animals on a day out at a farm. I’ve seen angry little boys playing rounders on a beach at sunset and for once forgetting to care whether they are winning or losing the game. We all need these moments to feel in our element, and for some children, it’s outside the classroom where their element exists.
Arguably, helping children to enjoy and engage with the world should be one of the most important things we teach them, and there’s a significant wellbeing benefit to trips in these contexts, too. The trip I’ve done most often in my career – five days on the Isle of Wight with Year 6 post-SATs – is genuinely one on which they make life-long memories: cementing friendships that are about to be tested by sudden differences in secondary schools and taking their first, wobbly steps towards independence, from packing their own bags each day to organising their own spending money.
Often, both the happiest and most heart-breaking moments on trips like this are seeing those who thrive under a system of care and structure that may be missing from their own home lives.
Yet at the other end of this scale, it’s also worth remembering that greater distance doesn’t always equal greater experience when it comes to school away days. You can help children look at their local area in a new light simply by taking them for a walk in it, and libraries, parks and even supermarkets are all novel enough school time experiences to provoke new discussions and ideas, even if they are just down the road.
For older children, the chance to visit local businesses and industrial sites can also bring new perspectives - both on the relevance of their in-school learning and their own future ambitions perhaps. Theme parks and funfairs can provoke discussions on science, as well as being an enjoyable day out. And there can be something strangely thrilling about going 'behind the curtain' in places that might previously have seemed invisible.
The key, ultimately is that ‘schools’ should be far more than simply the buildings that house them, and ‘learning’ should be far more than what children write in their books. And therefore trips aren’t really separate to ‘normal’ school at all – they’re actually a crucial part of it, sharpening children’s appetite for new knowledge and experiences in what will hopefully become a virtuous circle.
The best ones of all are fun, too – and that alone would be reason enough to make space in our jostling curriculums for them.
Kate Townshend is a primary teacher