My 18 years of homeschooling experience has instilled in me a rather strong skepticism of "educational" field trips and experiences.
An early field trip when my oldest son was about 10 was to the fabulous Space gallery that consists of exhaustively detailed displays and models on the edge of a spiraling rampway that leads up into the Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in NYC. My son was really excited to see this exhibit, as he had been just discovering space in its incomprehensible hugeness and mystery; we had been looking at lots of books on the subject at home. Keep in mind that we are unschoolers and were pretty much only reading about things as they interested us at home. His friend however, who was subject to more rigorous schooling at home, was really excited to run up and down the ramp. He kept attempting to pull my son away from his efforts to calculate the distances between galaxies with invitations to chase him down the ramp. My son was visibly torn, as what 10 year old wouldn't find running with a friend up and down a ramp an appealing activity. I ask you though, wouldn't my son have been better off on a personal trip rather than a "group" field trip? It is those group rates I guess that make us subject to these grueling experiences. I remain a skeptic of dragging large groups of kids to art museums and galleries of any kind. Who is the fool? Imagine being with your best friend in a museum that is perhaps focused on a subject you are not particularly interested in. (Diesel engines? ball room dancing?) Now imagine finding your self there alone. Wouldn't you be a lot more likely to "pay attention" or find something that interested you if you were on your own?
My entire family still shudders with horror at the memory of our ill-starred outing with another large homeschool family to the Science Museum in Philadelphia. We had tickets for a particular show, which has fade right out of my memory…I can only remember waiting with our kids in a long line on a long ramp to get into the much-touted exhibition. Then after that, we began exploring the regular galleries. It was one of those extremely hands on museums; one climbed onto train cars that moved, and pulled handles that made things happen in various displays. At some point, my friend's youngest son felt sick and vomited in the middle of a gallery floor, so I took up a post, straddling the vomit so as to prevent the tracking of it by other children through the busy museum. While I was busy doing this, my 6 year old son got lost. We heard an announcement to the effect of "Would the parents of…" and as my husband rushed to the reception desk, we realized that our daughter who was only 4 was now also missing. Our 9 year old son had seen her back in the electro magnetic gallery, but did not know where she was now. By now, a staff member had finally come to deal with the vomit, and we fanned out to find our traumatized daughter wandering from gallery to gallery. We grabbed her hand, and in one voice, all decided that it was enough museum experience for one day and got out of there as fast as we could.
So a few days ago, when I traveled to the Albany Visitor Center which houses a small planetarium, I tried to squelch my natural skepticism. I am now only homeschooling my two youngest, who at 15 and 13, are not about to get hopelessly lost in a maze of museum displays. We were signed up for a 45 minute presentation, a visit to the life size replica of Henry Hudson's boat, and a planetarium show. Rather dizzying and slightly puzzling as to why it was all linked together, but they did their best to make this work. The presentation took place in the Planetarium and consisted of one enterprising woman who started off wearing a huge pilgrim-ish hat with a buckle. She moved from a 3-d map of the world, to a heap of animal skins that she held up for examination, to handing out laminated pages of 17th century paintings that portrayed life at the time of Hudson's explorations. She was engaging and got some laughs, but it felt like history for dummies, a sort of quick hi-lights of history, and it covered a lot of ground very quickly with no time to think, discuss or ask questions. A little like a barrage of facts, textures, and humor…which included dressing up two of the audience members in funny outfits so they could stand in as characters in her presentation.
The trip onto the boat was different. One of the 3 presenters was dressed in period costume, complete with a beaver felt hat which reminded us of what we had just learned: beaver pelts had figured large apparently in why Hudson's voyage was ultimately considered to be a success. These three presenters took us to areas in the small boat and explained with attention to detail and what seemed to be great knowledge about what life on the boat would have been like. One of them even explained that he had corrected information in his presentation after a history professor had explained an error in an earlier form of the presentation to him. This part of the outing was quite worthwhile. Note that we were broken into rather small groups at this point and we were aboard the amazing model of the boat. Back at the Visitor Center, we were given a whirlwind explanation of stargazing and constellation-finding, and then back into the planetarium where we watched a show about humans exploring space in a general sort of way. Again, I cannot remember much about that show 5 days later. I wonder if my kids can.