The Miraculous Comeback of the Field Trip

What we can learn from a group of third graders on their first school outing since the start of the pandemic

Students on a bus feeding a giraffe at Out of Africa in Camp Verde, Arizona, on May 6, 2022
Cassidy Araiza

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You could hear them getting antsy through the bus windows. “I want to see a meerkat!” “Finally, I get to feel my feet!” And a deeper voice, just as emphatic: “SIT! DOWN!” It was a little after 10 a.m. on May 6 when three busloads of third graders poured out into the heat of a dusty parking lot at Out of Africa, a wildlife park about 90 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona. As a billboard had promised us on I-17, here in the high desert scrub, next to the Yavapai County jail: Adventure awaits.

After a year of Zoom school, followed by another year of mostly in-person learning characterized by stringent masking, constant hand sanitizing, and extended absences because of COVID-19 cases and possible exposures, the Academy of Math & Science Glendale had finally taken the plunge and returned to field trips. Now some 140 third graders were milling about, awaiting their next round of instructions in the unending sequence of logistics involved in a school outing.

AMS Glendale, a charter school in a working-class suburb of Phoenix, is more than two-thirds Hispanic; many parents are immigrants. About 80 percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. For most of the kids, this was their first field trip since before the pandemic; for some, it was their first field trip ever; for a few, it was their very first taste of Arizona beyond the edge of Phoenix’s sprawl. The school had been building anticipation for weeks with lessons about mammals and vertebrates, and a “habitat diorama” project planned for the kids’ return. I doubted whether Out of Africa, with its chain-link fencing and lethargic rhino, was the best place to learn about habitats, but the value of an outing to break the kids’ collective cabin fever was impossible to miss.

Field trips have been on the decline in American schools since well before the pandemic, much like art and music classes, and even recess. Administrators cite the usual culprits: money, instructional time. And research about the educational value of visiting zoos and museums has been mixed—sometimes kids aren’t even aware of what teachers hope for them to learn. But another strand of scholarship broadens the lens: It may be less important to absorb the particulars of what makes an ungulate an ungulate than it is to simply lay eyes on a giraffe, and, as a result, find yourself more interested in science than you were the day before.

One parent-chaperone joked that the years of cancellations and postponements during the pandemic have felt more like dog years in terms of child development. He was talking about his sons’ three missed seasons of Little League, but for children this age, the pandemic lines up, roughly, with not just the years when they learn to catch and throw but also the years they learn to read and write, ride a bike, tie shoes, establish deeper friendships, and develop a sense of self outside their parents’ orbit. A field trip couldn’t compensate for the long months of learning over a bad Wi-Fi connection. But it did promise to deliver a jolt of what parents told me their kids have missed: socialization, time outdoors, and a break from the pandemic doldrums.

Diptych: a child in profile with a surprised expression, a white tiger with an open mouth
It may be less important to absorb the particulars of what makes an ungulate an ungulate than it is to simply lay eyes on a giraffe.

We’d missed the turnoff for a planned bathroom break on the drive up, and now chaperones were eyeing a bank of porta-potties nervously as the kids squirmed. When I asked if she was excited for the occasion, Miley, shuffling in her patent-leather boots and bobbing a head full of twists, couldn’t yet focus on the attraction at hand—“It’s just another day until I get to use the bathroom.” Her classmates giggled in agreement. Half the charm of a field trip is in the waiting: the bus rides, the snacks, the jumbling of the social order as a school gets transposed onto a new environment. Standing in line to get into the park, Miley and her friends tested one another on the proper pronunciation of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. The moment when this are-we-there-yet energy transformed into full-on catharsis finally came when we boarded a park bus inside the gates for a loop of the Serengeti section, where, we were told, we’d get to feed a giraffe.

After a quick advisory on volume control, we rumbled forward, each clutching tiny sprigs of acacia leaves. Around a bend, Pilgrim came into view, towering over a fence beside the road: 23 feet of legs and neck covered in brown puzzle pieces, somehow both muscular and gangly. The row behind me let out an electric squeal, and the driver crackled over the loudspeaker, telling us to wave our acacia around outside the windows. Bracketing for a moment the question of whether a life of being hand-fed by screaming children in an enclosure on the juniper savanna is a good and humane one for a giraffe, the next 60 seconds were an ear-splitting assault of juvenile joy. The giraffe bent low and unfurled a gigantic black tongue, plucking the wisps of cool, green acacia from outstretched hands to choruses of “Oh my God!!!”

And yet I wondered whether the thrill owed more to the giraffes or to the social outlet provided by such a concentrated dose of other kids. When a squirrel crept along the fence line to see what the fracas was about, one student shouted, “The squirrel! The squirrel!” This pattern repeated itself throughout the day as we explored the park on foot—outbursts of euphoria triggered by things that seemed impossibly mundane. Yes, the kids screamed at the baby tigers splashing around a shallow pond with their handlers, but they screamed just as loudly at the sight of lizards crossing the road, a daily sight in Phoenix at this time of year. I remembered how invigorated I’d felt on the few occasions in the past year when I’d been surrounded by the freewheeling energy of a crowd—high in the stands at a WNBA game or dancing at a friend’s wedding. In this case, the crowd was one the kids saw almost every day, but schools are like airports or offices; your visits unfold on somebody else’s terms. Here, perhaps for the first time in years, they were out in force and (relatively) free to set their own agenda.

On the way up, I rode in the back seat of a Chevy Suburban as the fifth wheel to a group of chaperones—three mothers and an aunt—who pulled up photos from the school-bus convoy that teachers had uploaded in real time on an app called ClassDojo. Dalia Garcia said that her daughter Elena had woken up at 5 a.m.: “Today is the excursión!” Ana Laura Santiago and Katia Duran, sisters with daughters born a day apart, said that their children had been talking about it all week. Santiago adopted the tone of a child paraphrasing Very Serious Orders from her teacher. “I have to finish my homework, because if I don’t, I won’t be able to go on my field trip.”

Gauging exactly what we’ve asked kids to give up throughout the pandemic is hard. Fully grasping COVID-19’s impact on school learning and child care—to say nothing of the illnesses and deaths of millions—will take decades. But the lessons we take from childhood experiences can veer sharply from what adults might expect. My informal poll of students crowned Zoom school a clear winner over in-person classes, for reasons only third graders would think of: “You can’t get sent to the office”; “You can sneak onto YouTube”; “You can turn off your camera to go … ”—here, my respondent mimed the bliss of nodding off in class. It’s possible that they were serious. For an 8-year-old, the sacrifices and disruptions of the pandemic have now colored more than a quarter of their life, and perhaps as much as half of the time that they actually remember.

School kid with back to camera looking through a window
Here, perhaps for the first time in years, these students were out in force and (relatively) free to set their own agenda.

Even parents who professed relief at the strong return-to-normal energy of an all-day field trip acknowledged that it required some adjustment from them too. During the past school year, Alyssa Gastelum told me that she had felt mounting anxiety over the fact that her daughter, Melyssa, an only child living with her mom and grandparents, was “only around adults.” But she got emotional when she heard that the field trip would take Melyssa an hour and a half from home. “It was excitement, and then a little bit of fear,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable with her being so far away.” Chaperoning was, for her, a kind of trip back to the realm of parenting in normal circumstances, a chance to get used to seeing Melyssa venture farther afield.

Maria González had left Yuma, a farming town on the Mexican border, at 4 a.m. to meet her granddaughter on the field trip, and at the end of the day she waited in the shade of a juniper tree until she was sure her nieta was safely back on the school bus. “This is very good to restore the confidence of the kids,” González said, keeping her eyes on the idling bus. “They finally feel a bit free—running around, not wearing a mask. Kids will pick up on the confidence we project.” Her own children had lost patience with COVID-19 precautions, but she still wore a mask, and her nieta did too, at least when she was hanging out with grandma. Today, though, it felt good to put the pandemic out of mind.