Planning a field trip for your SPED class

At the end of last year, my team and I checked a big to-do off our list: we took the eight students in my class on a tour of the monuments in Washington, D.C. If you’ve never been, it’s incredible to see in person. Although my kids have lived in Washington their whole lives, they had never been to the National Mall. For the first time, they saw the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, and the Museum of Natural History.

We’re definitely spoiled to have these resources such a short trip from our classroom and it cost us almost nothing to go – just the cost of riding the subway. You may not have the Lincoln Memorial in your city, but you can come up with exciting things to see pretty easily. Museums, libraries, city hall, the fire station – these are all accessible and low-cost options for field trips.

Oftentimes, the hardest part of a field trip is getting your administrators to sign off. Here’s some of the questions you need to answer in your request to take your kids on a field trip.

Why do my students need to take this trip?

While a trip to a farm or the zoo might seem self-explanatory after teaching an eight-week unit on ecology, it may not be evident to administration, co-teachers, or parents.

Explain to them what your students will get out of the field trip. Is it new knowledge about a concept or location? Is it to practice riding public transit so they can gain independence like it was for my students? Is it to fulfill Common Core State Standards on speaking and listening? Whatever your purpose, make sure it is clear and your goal for the trip is attainable.

What do I need to do to prepare for this field trip?

This is a loaded question. Not only do you need to make sure you’ve taught the relevant course materials, but you need to prepare your students, parents, co-teachers, administrators, and the field trip coordinator at the trip location for what to expect.

Break down your to-do list into specific tasks: administrator and district paperwork, lesson planning, lunch preparation, field trip site communication, and parent communication. This way you will know exactly what you need to do in order to take your field trip.

One thing that is often overlooked is what you will need to do to prepare your students – which is the most important aspect of planning a field trip for students with special needs. Our students thrive off of predictable schedules and structured activities. Field trips interrupt their expected schedule and are not always structured. Preparing your students for what to expect on the trip can make all the difference between a fun, hands-on learning experience and a special education teacher’s nightmare. That brings us to the next point:

How do I prepare my students for a field trip?

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Communicate early and communicate often. Teach lessons about what students will see, teach lessons about manners in public, teach lessons about expected behaviors. Here is a sample list of ways I prepared my students for our monuments field trip:

  • We did read-alouds about the Washington Monument, U.S. Capitol Building, and White House.

  • We wrote informative texts about the monuments (also a great time to work on Common Core State Standards and alternate standards).

  • I created a “Question of the Day” for my students to answer about the monuments.

  • I taught specific lessons on appropriate and inappropriate behaviors in public. Some helpful books on the topic: Manners in Public and My Day is Ruined: A Story Teaching Flexible Thinking.

  • One of the most popular things with my students was virtual field trips – the day before our field trip, my students participated in a QR-code scavenger hunt in which they watched videos about riding on public transit. They explored the monuments using 3D models to see what the inside of the buildings look like. They watched videos about what to expect when touring the National Mall. The videos and virtual reality sites helped prepare them while reviewing key facts about the monuments. Check out Google Arts and Culture for virtual field trips around the globe!

How will I get the resources I need to take this field trip?

Resources are limited, but you don’t need to start digging through the couch in the teacher’s lounge for spare change (yet!).

First, reach out to your administrators, team lead, or co-teachers to see what resources your school makes available. Does your department have funds set aside for field trips? Does your school or district provide transportation services? Does the place you want to go have discounted rates for schools or special education students? Is it free? I have found that a lot of places have discounts or special offers for students with special needs, so use this to your advantage! I know one special education teacher who took her students on a field trip to Trader Joe’s. It cost nothing, and the students were able to explore possible careers.

If you are a public school teacher, DonorsChoose (sign up here and get matched donations) is a great place to request the funds needed to take a field trip. You can request funds for transportation, ticket fees, lunch, and even souvenirs! Check out this helpful guide for more information about using DonorsChoose to fund your field trip.

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What do I need for the day of the field trip?

There’s two things that your field trip will not be successful without: a detailed plan and a backpack with the essentials. Here are some things that I always take with me:

  • A folder with printed permission slips, parents’ emergency contact information, and confirmation emails for the field trip site. Phones die. Confirmation emails and phone numbers get lost. Do yourself a favor and print all of it out and bring a copy on your field trip – you’ll be glad you did.
  • A first aid kit. You never know when you will need a Band-Aid or an ice pack!

  • Inhalers and/or any medication students have on file. Again, you never know when you will need these, so always take them with you.

  • Phone charger. Because, again, phone’s die.

  • Sunscreen. There’s nothing like getting back on the bus and realizing you look like a lobster.

  • Extra water. Make sure your students fill their water bottles before the trip, and keep extra water bottles on hand as well. Bonus points if you freeze them on a hot day.

So there you have it. If you can answer those questions, your administrators and parents will feel much better about your field trip. Consider your students’ unique needs, development, and goals. Plan the field trip and stay flexible. Plan for the unexpected (closed exhibits, lost lunches, traffic on the way to your trip site). If you show that you can put together a good trip, you’ll be trusted to take your students on more.