By Danielle Bruening, homeschooling mother of five children
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Our family loves a good adventure, though when all of our kids were little, my husband and I often wondered if our outings were worth all the work! Our grandest adventure yet was this past summer and fall when we were blessed to travel and live back East for 6 months for my husband’s employment. While we did go on several field trips as a family, for the most part, it was just my 5 children and me hitting the road together to explore. They were ages 7-16 at the time. Here are a few things I learned as we headed out the door about 3 days a week on field trips.
1. Buy-in is Big!
Spending the time and energy to arrive at a special spot, only to have resistant learners in tow can be a really discouraging experience. Every child, and every parent, has their moments, and not every field trip we went on was an amazing success for every family member. But we developed a family planning process that helped prevent a lot of our most common issues. It evolved to look something like this:
Step 1: Brainstorm possible options with the children
Every few weeks we would refresh our field trip list with a brainstorm session. I found this to work so much better than just telling them where we would go. I would cast my computer screen to our VRBO’s television screen, and we would explore options together using Google Maps and YouTube videos. I’d done my homework beforehand (researching Road School Facebook groups and blogs) so I could efficiently guide them through the options.
Step 2: Gather opinions
We kept a spreadsheet where each child could voice their preference about each idea on a scale of 1 to 10. If a location gained really low ratings, and I felt like their opinions were unjustified, I’d pause and ask why. Usually there were misunderstandings about the potential adventure. I would teach them more about the possibility, show them more videos or blogs about it, and often they changed their minds. Other times, I did eliminate options that were clearly only interesting to me!
Step 3: Make the final decision
In the end, I would factor in the kids’ opinions, weather, time constraints, my goal to rotate between nature time, historical sites, museums of all varieties, and “just for fun” places, etc., and then I’d make the final decision about our adventure. But the kids felt heard and involved and inspired in the process, which made the time it took completely worth it!
2. Hearing the Hesitant
Knowing how each child felt about a given adventure gave me an idea of where everyone’s
attitudes were at. If almost everyone gave something a 10 except one child, who gave it a 3, I knew I had some preliminary work to do to make the day successful for that child. We would talk through why they weren’t excited. Sometimes they had safety concerns that weren’t obvious to me, like wondering if there was currently a hurricane at the barrier island we were going to visit. Sometimes they were worried about walking all day or being bored. If an adventure was truly beyond a younger child’s developmental ability or interest levels to endure naturally, I would help them chose an appropriate incentive to keep them motivated to make good choices and keep a positive attitude throughout the day. We talked about the expectation to be a team player, even though it wasn’t their favorite field trip, and talked specifically about what that looks like for our family.
I often needed to remind myself that kids aren’t developmentally designed to be tourists. Most kids need large doses of playtime every day. We often slowed down, to “smell the roses”, balance on the curbs, play in the sand, collect pine cones, etc. Combining a pleasant adventure with a less appealing one also helped, like stopping at the playground on the way home from a history museum, or tagging the zoo onto a quick stop at a cathedral I really wanted to see. Making photo ops completely optional also helps resistant field trippers in our family (and most of the time, they would jump in at the last minute, not wanting to be left out). Almost one hundred percent of the time, resistant learners ended up enjoying the field trip in the end, but we avoided initial power struggles to get there by taking the time to communicate.
Side note: My older kids almost always ranked every option a 10, but they were sometimes
worried about getting homework done for online classes. This is a legitimate concern and one we encounter even more at now that we’re home, where they carry a heavier class and homework load than they did while we lived back East. Not every family is the same, and one way is not better than another, but I feel like adventures are important for our family bonding and their mental health to lead a balanced life, so I encourage them to come. I listen to their concerns and help them plan their time more effectively so that they can go on family outings and relax and enjoy, knowing they’ll still get the other things done, or knowing that it’s okay to let some things go. Sometimes that means they study in the car or listen to audio books with headphones while we drive. They’ve learned to fit studying into small, free bits of space in their schedules instead of relying exclusively on large blocks of open time.
Occasionally, they will skip out on an activity with the family, but most of the time, they come, and learn to manage their time better the next week. They’re learning that family time together is important, no matter how busy life gets.
3. Ease through the essentials
There’s something to be said for spontaneity, and we did find that a few of our best adventures were random and last minute. But for our more involved outings, going through the basics a day or two beforehand, made for a much better day for me, and therefore, for all of us. I could focus my attention on the kids and on the learning we were doing, knowing that the essentials were taken care of. These are things that helped an adventure go smoothly:
Map out the route beforehand
Take tolls and/or rush hour into account
Make sure there’s enough gas for the drive, or leave early enough to get gas on the way
Pack a lunch and plenty of snacks, or be aware of options for nearby, affordable food stops
Use websites like Spot Hero or Spot Angel to pinpoint parking plans for the day
Explore the venue or park’s website to understand the layout, hours, special prices, closure days, etc.
Double check having the appropriate passes, and cash on-hand just in case
Read blog posts from other visitors to learn from their experiences
Go over rules and expectations with the kids
Be aware of safety concerns in the area
Find interesting stops along the way
Pack sunscreen, gear, first aid kits, walkie-talkies/batteries, etc.
Dress for the occasion
4. Lean into Learning
In full disclosure, sometimes we did absolutely nothing to prepare academically for a field trip—the venues or parks held their own first-class learning experiences. I loved to join in with my kids and let park rangers and museum docents, exhibits and interactive modules teach all of us!
Field trip burn out and information overload were real as we tried to squeeze as many experiences as we could into such a short time. Because of this, I did not require any formal learning like reports or worksheets. This fell in line with the advice of seasoned “Road Schoolers” on Facebook groups, who admonished new Road Schoolers to “inspire not require.”
But often, we did do some exploratory learning together beyond our adventure.
A few times I invited older kids to research a spot and prepare to teach us about it when we got there.
Almost always, we watched YouTube videos about where we were going, or checked out related videos or books from the library.
On our drives, we frequently listened to related audio books.
During the field trips, kids took pictures of things they wanted to remember or draw in their journals later. They collected pamphlets and postcards. They were always invited to work for Junior Ranger badges or to complete scavenger hunts provided by the venue. Maybe because they weren’t required, most of the time they chose to do them!
A lot of field trip-friendly spots have gift shops. They can be fun, productive stops, but in our family, the experience is more positive if we go over a few rules every time we go in, about how to touch things, ask for things, buy things, and how to leave when it’s time. I love to go in and take pictures of the children’s books sold in the shop. On our drive home, or once we were home, we would google the titles of the books and find videos of someone reading them on YouTube.
Organic discussions on the way home happened as well, and were often our best way to process what we had learned.
One of my favorite learning activities was my daughter’s idea. During a few evenings at home, we all used canvas and acrylics to paint the various lighthouses we had visited!
Occasionally now that we’re home from our adventure, we’ll revisit a spot through our family pictures, YouTube videos, books, etc. It is my hope that for the rest of their lives, they’ll tag new information on to the memories they have as they read books, watch movies, and remember the awesome places we were able to visit!
5. Find Flexibility
We’ve been home for a few months now, and it is fascinating to me what the children remember and talk about the most from our experiences.
They have forgotten which states a lot of landmarks are in. They all blend together. But they remember the nature– the fireflies, the ticks (ew!), the frog house they made, the tadpoles they raised, the monarch caterpillars they kept fed through a twelve-day trip through New England, the lobster they chose from the tank and then refused to eat once it was cooked, the times we played in water, the shells they collected, the seals they saw, the sunrises we watched, the storms we survived, etc.
They have forgotten some of the famous people we learned about, but they remember the friends we made. Arranging to go on field trips with friends can add an element of chaos, but in my opinion, it’s always worth it! My kids will excitedly agree to even their least favorite activities if friends are invited along. And I always enjoy having another adult along to talk to and to help with herding kids!
They have forgotten the names or the stories of some of the historic sites we visited, but they remember the funny things that happened, the Spirit they felt in sacred places, the cheerful (and likewise the cranky) moments, or when their sense of adventure or curiosity was activated.
I’m trying to keep this in mind as we plan future field trips and family adventures. While my adult brain wants to plan to learn all the things and see all the places, for the child’s heart and mind, it’s all about the wonder, the curiosity, and the connection.
Danielle Bruening is a homeschool mom to 5 kids, ages 8-16. She’s homeschooled for 13 years but has worked in education for 25 years. She has degrees in Marriage, Family and Human Development, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and Elementary Education. She loves hiking, camping, kayaking, and traveling, and enjoys mentoring Student Council, middle and high school age students at Aspire Scholar Academy.