“Milwaukee Art Museum,” Credit: Angela Watson

By Angela Watson

Why are arts field trips important? We load up kids by the hundreds on buses and take them away from their schools. A 1 to 2 hour field trip takes half a day once you account for loading, unloading, and travel time. Teachers have to get subs to cover their other classes. Students miss at least half a day of classroom instruction. Someone has to pay for all of this; either schools, parents, or outside funders. Is it all worth it?

Interested to know how stakeholders would answer, I asked teachers this question while they were on a field trip, in the trenches. I wasn’t sure how they would answer. Maybe they wouldn’t think field trips were a good use of time and that their students would benefit more from the half-day of seat time they would miss. However, every single teacher I asked told me the same thing. From their perspective, the field trip was all about exposure.

Most of the teachers I spoke with taught at high poverty, urban schools filled with majority minority students. They said that, because these kids live in a city, people think they must be used to seeing all the great things a city has to offer, but that in reality many of them have never left their neighborhoods. Many have never been farther from home than the corner store. Everyone around them looks like them, talks like them, has the same experiences that they do. They live in isolation within the city. The teachers I spoke with said that they thought field trips were important for their kids so that they could be exposed to the outside world. Without school field trips, these students might not have the opportunity to see the things that other students take for granted. Even if they didn’t particularly love the theater, or symphony, or art museum, they would know what it was because they had been and understood it in a way that they couldn’t through seeing it on TV, in books, or hearing someone talk about it. They got to hear the music, see the actors, city, architecture, art, and people. They were exposed.

As researchers in a field where few have researched before, we sometimes have to feel our way through the theory that guides our work. Normally, we would base our theory on prior literature and we do, but there is limited literature on arts field trips to guide us. One of the main theories from which our research team, lovingly referred to as Team Greene after the lead researcher and field trip research pioneer Jay P. Greene, operates is the idea of arts field trips being a window to a larger world. Children with little experience who live in isolated microcosms are exposed to a larger world when they go on field trips. This exposure widens their world and in doing so, changes their perspective.

Indeed, prior work has found evidence to support this theory. Effects on measures of tolerance and social perspective taking as a result of field trips (under experimental conditions) were stronger for students who were less likely to have prior exposure.  Does more exposure pay higher dividends or is a little exposure enough? These are questions we hope to be better able to answer in future work.

If we think field trips broaden a child’s world, especially for those who have had the least exposure and are the most isolated, then field trips are justified for this reason alone. Obviously, there are a multitude of other possible benefits to students from arts related field trips like going to see a play, hear the symphony, or visit an art museum, but a little exposure is an important one.

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 Angela Watson is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.