The Power of Field Trips Provide Learning Opportunities

Family riding 1859 Balloon Voyage

What do you think of first when you think of field trips? Whatever it was that first came to mind, that is learning. Be it the taste of a sack lunch, the smell of a farm animal, the sound of a school bus rolling down the road, the feel of upholstery on a theater seat, or the sight of an apple growing in a tree, all of it is learning.  

How a field trip can make an impact on students

You’ll notice, perhaps, that I listed no standards, no dates, no facts, no tests. A field trip is not about memorizing facts or mastering a standard. A standard is something learned over an entire school year, not in a three hour field trip. It would be impossible, not to mention unethical, and just plain mean, to test children after a fun trip to see if they came away from it with concrete knowledge of a certain standard.  And that isn’t what a field trip should be about anyway.

(But, and only if I must . . . research shows that field trips boost test scores. This study sent one group of students on three field trips and the other group — poor little souls — on no trips at all, and found that the students who went on field trips had higher test scores for years afterwards.)

But a three hour trip can offer so much more than better test scores! The chance to see an animal you have only ever read about or to smell the smoke from a wood-burning fire; to hear an actor say lines that previously were just words on a page or to feel a hatchet in your hands before you throw it. These are things that cannot be fit into the box of a single standard or a bubble on a standardized test. These are opportunities for students to create their own knowledge and experiences first hand.  

How Conner Prairie provides learning

A field trip to Conner Prairie is an opportunity for students to leave the regular, everyday of the classroom and learn elsewhere. After all, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, a “field trip” is “a visit made by students to study something away from their school or college.” This “away” should be not only physical, but mental and academic too.  For one day (all days, really, but at least one day), students should have the opportunity to learn at their own pace, to follow their own interests, and to discover their own passions. Or to “just” have fun and enjoy themselves. We are all — student and teacher, child and adult — humans who need time to have fun and a break from work and from the classroom, from the everyday.  

And all of these things, all of it, is learning. Humans learn in all situations, and by being able to experience different situations they are given unique opportunities to learn. That learning can’t always be dictated or prescribed, but it is there. Nor can it be cornered into the separate boxes of different subject matters — by the very nature of discovering knowledge themselves, students will be learning about several different topics all at once. Neuroscience tells us that only 5% of learning takes place in the classroom. By providing students (and all humans, really) with the time, space, and freedom to learn at their own pace, here at Conner Prairie we are supporting the other 95%.  


While the trip itself may be limited to a certain length or a certain day, we don’t have an agenda or a set list of planned activities. There is time for the students to explore the experience areas, at their own pace, and on their own agenda. We don’t have a set schedule nor do we limit how much time they can spend in one area (excepting the Animal Barn, due purely to crowd control concerns). And if they really enjoyed an area or activity they can always go back and visit again.  


The environment is key to learning.  Conner Prairie has over 1,000 acres of land for students, and all guests, to explore.  When I brought my 3-month-old to Playtime on the Prairie, I wasn’t concerned about if she would learn about the different types of citrus, I wanted her to be in an amazing new environment where she could learn from everything she saw, heard, and smelled around her. I wanted her to get a chance to leave the familiar of her everyday and find something new! This is true for all of the students who come on field trips. Everything they see, hear, smell, touch, and sense in every way is teaching them something new. In addition, we have the literal space that allows students to run and play.

Playtime on the Prairie is an early childhood experience tailored for our youngest guests. Each session is designed to bring Conner Prairie to life in a developmentally appropriate way for ages birth to two years and those ages three to five. Learn More about Playtime on the Prairie.


At Conner Prairie, students can learn free from a set dictation of what they should do, and what they should learn. Instead they are free to learn what they want to learn, or what they need to learn, even if they themselves didn’t realize it. Maybe they will learn that potatoes grow in the ground. Maybe they didn’t even know they didn’t know, but now they do, and it is something they can carry forward, to their next experiences, to the rest of their lives. They are able to follow their interests on their own schedule. The seeds have been planted for future connection and deep learning!

kids with sheep

These things are uniquely Conner Prairie. We are able to provide an opportunity for students to learn at their own pace and find things that they enjoy. Be it petting one of our heritage breed animals or climbing into the treetops, they have the time, space, and freedom to follow their interests and learn along the way.

Always learning is essential

Field trip season is nearly here again. I cannot wait for the day the first buses roll in, bringing students here! (I have been known to hug buses before!) No matter where they go or what they do, they will be learning. Because that is what we excel at here at Conner Prairie — creating opportunities for learning, opportunities to encounter something new and different, or perhaps familiar and comforting. After all, Conner Prairie’s mission is “to inspire curiosity and foster learning.” And no matter what the student (or the adult) finds here — a heritage breed of animal, a tree, an insect, a new food, a story that hasn’t been told before — there will be learning, because we are all learning, all of the time, not because we were lectured or “taught” but because we are human.

Learn more about our self guided tours and how you can bring history and exploration to your class. Request a date for a field trip today!

About the Author

Laura Mortell is the School Programs Coordinator at Conner Prairie.  She started at Conner Prairie as a youth volunteer in 2004 and has been on staff since March 2010.  Over the past 12 years she has been in many roles including working in the Welcome Center and in historic clothing in 1836 Prairietown.  She now works in the Education Department on a variety of amazing school projects.