Field trips, the highlight of school days for many elementary-age children, were stifled during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, so parents like Jacqueline Davis of Westlake, Ohio, sought out alternatives. She found one on Facebook: virtual meetups with animal caretakers at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which showed her sons Aston, 7, and Luke, 4, fun facts like how a zookeeper cuts elephants’ toenails and gives the two-ton pachyderms a bath.
“When you attend the zoo on a regular day, you are seeing animals from behind the railings and fences, but the virtual field trips were a unique opportunity to go behind the scenes,” Davis says.
The hourlong virtual field trip sparked lots of questions and kept the boys engaged, even though they were in their living room rather than piling into a school bus for a day trip or touring the zoo grounds with their parents. “It was an up-close and personal way to meet the animals that we’ve never had,” Davis says.
With reduced travel and in-person field trips during the pandemic, more families are looking for ways to get out safely and expose their children to new experiences without risking health and safety. Enter the virtual field trip and online experiences that open up a wide world of wonder while removing barriers like transportation, travel, cost and time.
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Any day can be a vacation day with an online trip, and many destinations across the country have adapted programs to deliver online content during the pandemic. For example, the National Park Service offers virtual tours of its 423 sites, from an interactive scavenger hunt on the Black Heritage Trail in Boston to explorer videos of California’s Death Valley.
“We connect families to history-inspiring stories, challenges faced, as well as remarkable landscapes, cultures, art, music, science and more,” says Shauna Potocky, acting director of the Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center.
Virtual field trips also give families an opportunity to explore bucket-list destinations and potentially plan where they would like to visit in the future.
“It’s an opportunity to explore the world, cultures and anything that is not readily available in your local community. It takes away boundaries and is cost-effective,” says Tiffany Foster, a PTA leader in Durham, North Carolina, adding that her middle-schooler “visited” the Grand Canyon and learned about conservation. “Now we put this trip on our family wish list.”
Choosing a Virtual Field Trip for Kids
With a world of options to discover, how do you decide where to start and what to visit? First, consider a child’s interests. “What excites them? When you answer that, you can make connections based on what your child enjoys, where you hope to visit or things you want to see,” Potocky says.
Download and print a map, such as the one by the National Park Service that pinpoints its sites. “Let your child pick out some places to navigate and learn about,” Potocky suggests.
Missy Higgens-Linder, director of learning and engagement at the Cleveland Museum of Art, says quality programs should encourage practicing attention, connection, creativity, perspective and wonder.
Ultimately, a virtual visit should go beyond the screen. Some programs make this possible by providing activity kits prior to the experience, Higgens-Linder says. Other resources include online downloadables. “We want to make sure there are asynchronous resources families can access at any time, even if they have just five or 10 minutes,” she says.
Be sure the virtual field trip is designed for the child’s age and stage, Higgens-Linder adds. Some resources organize online experiences by grade or age group.
“Our website’s learn section has resources tailored to developmental stages, so a parent of a younger child can tap into My Very First Art Class at Home, and older kids can explore our Collections Connections series that group works from our collections around themes that help them explore big ideas,” she explains.
Also consider the group size and whether a particular child will feel lost in an online crowd. Some children can handle large online meetings better than others, points out Jessica Drzewucki, principal of Ps 128 Bensonhurst in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.
Virtual field trips that allow kids to engage with the “tour guide” and ask questions make for a more personalized experience. “It feels like something special,” she says, while some of the open trips that do not require preregistration “can feel like going to the movies, where there is not that much interaction,” she says.
Drzewucki has also had success with focused virtual trips vs. general tours. “Rather than ‘a visit to the zoo,’ I recommend ‘amazing lizards of South America,'” she says as an example. “With a focus that is in-depth, they walk away excited, knowledgeable and they have had an experience vs. a Google Maps overview.”
Make the Most of a Virtual Field Trip
Just as a parent prepares the family for a vacation or educational excursion to a museum or park, setting expectations and doing a bit of legwork will ensure that kids get the most out of a virtual field trip.
“It’s best when we have kids think and talk about the topic ahead of time so they are prepared with questions to ask, or they can answer their own questions throughout the online trip,” Drzewucki says.
Here are additional pointers for parents:
Mind the time. Drzewucki finds that 60- to 90-minute virtual field trips offer well-rounded experiences. “Shorter ‘visits’ can feel not worth waiting for everyone to sign into the meeting and get settled, but much longer and kids will lose interest, even with the most engaging topics,” she says. Consider the child’s age and attention span for consuming online content.
Clear a space. Find a quiet area free of distractions, and consider giving the child noise-canceling headphones so he or she can tune in and focus on the virtual field trip. Plan on signing on early to take full advantage of the experience.
Bring note-taking supplies. Pencils, crayons, paper and perhaps a journal where a child can record questions and observations will enhance the online experience by making it more tangible.
“For me, it’s important to consider how you can make it an active experience,” Potocky says. “Ask your child to draw a picture of something they saw, or compare and contrast elements of what they learned to elements where they live. Or, they might draw a map of a virtual tour they took. Writing reflections are also a great option.”
Be curious. “Parents can model the learning by asking questions and not having all of the answers,” Higgens-Linder says. From there, parents can encourage their child to dig deeper and access complementary materials such as downloadable activities or videos, she recommends. “These can be starting points for more independent exploration.”
Virtual Field Trips to Try
Connect to destinations near and far with a variety of virtual field trips for kids. Here are 20 picks to plug into upcoming “travel” plans.
— American Museum of Natural History
— The British Museum
— The Cleveland Museum of Art
— The Louvre
— Boston Children’s Museum
— Plimoth Plantation
— The Nature Conservancy
— The National Park Service
— The White House
— Buckingham Palace
— The National Aquarium
— The Bronx Zoo
— Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
— San Diego Zoo
— Shedd Aquarium
— M&M Factory Tour
— Recycling Exposed
— Slime in Space
— Cracking Up
American Museum of Natural History. The Scientist is In offers a family-friendly livestream with museum scientists and researchers, while Astronomy Online is a tour of the universe by museum astrophysicists.
The British Museum. Explore ancient civilizations and engage in courses that include live music and performances. The virtual visit, Peek into prehistory, includes live activities, interactive quizzes and question-and-answer sessions as children learn the difference between the Bronze Age and Iron Age in Britain by using archaeological objects to explore homes of people then and now.
The Cleveland Museum of Art. From virtual studio programs to creative challenges, the museum opens its collections to virtual visitors with webcams, downloadable activities, classes and activities that incorporate online and hands-on experiences.
The Louvre. While the Louvre is closed during the pandemic, it offers virtual tours allowing visitors to take in the museum’s architecture while enjoying tours like Founding Myths: From Hercules to Darth Vader, which explores how illustrators, painters, puppeteers, filmmakers and musicians draw inspiration from myths and bring them to life with art.
Boston Children’s Museum. Get ready to play as the Boston Children’s Museum shows and tells children about its features through virtual tours of all its floors. Check out exhibits like Explore-a-Saurus to observe fossil evidence and formulate theories of what dinosaurs looked like and how they behaved.
Landmarks and Parks
Plimoth Plantation. Step aboard the Mayflower, tour a pilgrims village, experience the day-to-day life of Wampanoag Indians and learn what the first Thanksgiving was really like.
The Nature Conservancy. Virtual field trips and online courses allow children to engage in learning activities ranging from exploring coral reefs while in a canoe to touring rainforests and deserts. Virtual travel includes destinations in China, Peru and within the U.S., for example.
The National Park Service. The National Park Service opens up a world of opportunity to virtually engage with wildlife conservationists, take part in scavenger hunts, listen to stories and see some of nature’s wonders from the Great Smoky Mountains to Yellowstone National Park. Download a map and pick a nearby park or choose one far away from home.
The White House. A virtual tour of the White House puts one closer to the artifacts and rooms in the U.S. president’s home than is possible in person. The tour walks visitors through the halls and offers access to all public rooms on the ground and state floors. Visitors can also download a companion digital notebook with materials including vocabulary, reflection questions and activities.
Buckingham Palace. Have a royal adventure at Buckingham Palace in London with tours of the Grand Staircase, White Drawing Room, Throne Room and Blue Drawing Room.
Volcanoes. The U.S. Geological Survey monitors 169 potentially active volcanoes and provides an interactive map allowing visitors to find out about any of them.
Zoos and Aquariums
The National Aquarium. Explore scenes through the aquarium’s webcam, from alligators and sea turtles to ecosystems like the Amazon River and Channel Islands.
The Bronx Zoo. Experience a virtual encounter with a keeper who answers questions, and meet some stars from Animal Planet’s “The Zoo.” The Bronx Zoo says its virtual visits get participants close enough to possibly hear a cheetah purring.
San Diego Zoo. The Zoo Kids webcams let children zoom in on their favorite animals, from apes to hippos and polar bears. Kids Corner videos introduce young viewers to topics like how camouflage works and why meat-eating animals are misunderstood.
Shedd Aquarium. Chicago’s aquarium offers online minicamps such as Shedd to the Rescue, and up-close looks at features such as the Wild Reef exhibit that showcases the Philippine coral reefs. Check out Shedd’s Facebook page for online events.
Just for Fun
M&M Factory Tour. The Food Network takes visitors on a tour of the M&M factory in New Jersey that shows how the chocolate-coated candies are created.
Recycling Exposed. Ever wonder what happens to the plastic and glass tossed into a recycling bin? Republic Services has a video tour of its recycling center that shows how sophisticated equipment works to sort, pack and ship recyclable materials.
Slime in Space. Nickelodeon partnered with NASA astronauts at the International Space Station on a 15-minute virtual field trip that takes visitors 250 miles above the earth to see how slime and water react in a microgravity environment. Tucked into the fun-filled experience are science and physics lessons — and there’s a bit of a mess involved, too.
Cracking Up. Kids can learn what’s involved in modern-day egg farming on Virtual Egg Farm Field Trips, a partnership between the American Egg Board and Discovery Education. Farmers share their sustainable practices, how robots work on egg farms and what keeps their generations-old operations going.
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