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Virtual Field Trips Full of Learning Potential

Bring the world to your students with these free online experiences for your classroom.

Christine Elgersma | March 31, 2021

There's nothing quite like a field trip: That legendary day when permission slips grant students golden tickets to an experience outside the classroom.

Although virtual field trips don't physically bring kids to new locations, they make use of the web and video to amplify online learning in an experiential way. And at their best, virtual field trips can be transporting, informative, and inspiring.

So where do you start? You might already have a topic in mind, which will narrow your choices. However, you'll also want to consider what type of virtual field trips to try. Here’s a breakdown of the different kinds of experiences out there. You can jump to each section using the links below:

  • Livestreaming means students watch a live feed from a camera in another location. Interestingly, these are most often focused on animals.
  • Interactive exploration offers students a multimedia experience that's usually more hands-on and open-ended.
  • Video visits take kids to a location (by video) where a host or narrator provides information.
  • Scheduled and guided virtual field trips feature a live guide or museum docent -- often on site -- who takes students through the experience virtually.

Using livestreams for virtual field trips

If you want kids to practice their observation skills, this is the way to go. Plus, there's something truly amazing about opening a window and seeing an elephant drinking from a watering hole in Africa -- right now. The immediacy of real-time footage captures something an edited video can't, and watching animals in their own environments is a great observation opportunity for students of all ages.

One of the best things about these livestreams is that they connect kids to the pace of nature. Unlike an edited movie that highlights an exciting narrative, these cams show the everyday, sometimes mundane moments. Acknowledge and explore that with kids! Here are some great livestreaming sites to consider:

Explore.org

Suggested grades: Elementary to middle school

Explore.org streams from cameras pointed at animal habitats and enclosures around the world. From kittens playing at a rescue sanctuary to bears feasting on salmon in Katmai Park, there are almost 100 livestreams going at any given time. While many of the cams are consistently lively, plenty of others (mostly the wildlife cams) have empty airtime that isn't showing any animals. Also, the livestreams change with the seasons, so students could catch timely events, like gray seal whelping, puffin nesting, or salmon running. Each camera features information that includes a location, its features, the focus of the livestream, a map, and more. Occasionally, scientists host events to answer questions live. And just so you don't miss anything, there's a clickable banner that shows when something noteworthy is happening on another camera.

Using Explore.org for virtual field trips:

Of course, the site is great when teaching scientific concepts, like observation and inquiry, but students can also use their observations to write stories, create art, do research, or practice map skills based on the live footage. Pairing it with the San Diego Zoo resources (see below)  to compare and contrast wild vs. captive animals could also get kids thinking.

For pre-readers, you can choose a few cameras to visit, depending on how active the scene is. To practice observation, have kids pay attention to what they can see and hear. (Some channels have better sound than others.) Find out what kids know already about a particular animal, and then read the information the channel provides. You can also build the site into a bigger unit on a particular habitat or animal, like the African forests or the elephant. Watch videos, read books, and observe elephants doing their thing live!

Older students can practice more sophisticated observation and inquiry and may have more tolerance to work with the potential lack of action. They can choose a channel to observe over time, or they can incorporate their observations into a research project. If they have the equipment and access to nature, they could also experiment with setting up a camera to observe local wildlife.

San Diego Zoo

Suggested grades: Elementary school

The zoo has set up cameras with a good view of 13 different animal enclosures, including the platypuskoalas, and penguins. Similar to Explore.org, the live feeds show the animals' behavior in real time (though there's no sound), and the site gives information about each species. However, in this case, the zoo can give very specific information about each animal and, in most cases, how they ended up at the zoo. There's an informational page about each species, including links to the sounds they make and a blog that tracks specific events in the zoo animals' lives.

In the Conservation section of the information page, kids can learn about any threats a specific species faces and what's being done to help them. Be aware that there are pop-ups requesting donations, so kids will have to click to close them, and some exhibits have corporate sponsoring information included.

Using the San Diego Zoo for virtual field trips:

All the possibilities that apply to Explore.org apply here as well, but the San Diego Zoo additionally provides lots of information that gives kids more background and lets them connect to specific animals. You could just visit once, or you could set a specific time to check in with students' chosen animals each week -- or every day -- to note their observations. The additional information is also a great springboard for other research. As mentioned above, kids can also compare the live feeds of wild animals to captive ones, especially since there's some overlap in species.

Smithsonian's National Zoo

Suggested grades: Early elementary school

This site has only four live cameras that include elephants, pandas, lions, and even a naked mole rat. Some of the cameras have accompanying FAQs and social sites to follow, but not all. What sets this site apart, however, are the printable activities you can download. Aimed at early readers, the resources serve as fun companions to the site.

Using Smithsonian's National Zoo for virtual field trips:

This site comes with printable activities, which is an obvious, one-time extension of the experience. Older kids could also compare and contrast different zoos using criteria they generate, and the livestreams could provide one data point.

Other Livestreams to check out:

Using interactive exploration for virtual field trips

Interactive exploration gives kids a bit more agency to poke around at their own pace, follow their interests, and maybe do some research for a jigsaw or flipped classroom activity. It can also offer some pretty impressive interactivity that other experiences don't. Depending on the topic, it's generally best for older elementary, middle, or high school students. Here are some great interactive explorations to consider for your classroom:

Google Arts & Culture

Suggested grades: Middle and high school

Truly, there are few sites like this one, and with so many experiences available it's difficult to narrow it down. The elements with the best possibilities for a virtual field trip are in the Places and Museums categories. A mind-blowing number of countries and cities are represented, and each has collections and stories -- sometimes numbering in the thousands. You can further organize those by popularity or historical timeline. You can even sort museum collections by color! It may take some digging to find exactly what you want, but try some of the ideas below if you're short on time.

Read our review of Google Arts & Culture

Using Google Arts & Culture for virtual field trips:

If you're starting a unit on Shakespeare and want an exciting way to pepper in some moments that go beyond the page, check out Performing Shakespeare to experience 360° excerpt videos from the Royal Shakespeare Company, or rifle through the prop trunk at the Globe. Something like the Street Art feature can lead to discussions about multiple forms of expression, representation of community, or the many ways people can be activists. With the Wonders of Mexico feature (or any other similar one), you can dive into all the elements that make a place what it is: the history, the art, the traditions, and more.

And with nearly infinite possibilities, you can come at the site from myriad angles. Try honing persuasive skills by letting kids research some famous works of art and argue what elements make a piece of art "great." Or have kids record their reactions to specific colors in art and then see if their reactions line up with science. If they look using the timeline feature, they could use the exhibits from that period to make their research come alive. Or -- if you want to flip the classroom -- turn kids loose, let them follow their passions, and then have them teach the class about something they researched on the site within the parameters you set.

National Geographic

Suggested grades: Middle and high school

You know it, you love it -- National Geographic has a ton of resources for teachers. There are articles, videos, activities, and more, and there's something for all grade levels. With Travel, Animals, Science, and History & Culture as topics to explore, teachers can take the content in a lot of directions. And, with a brand this huge, you can also find full-length shows, video series, and even a podcast. Though there are loads of videos you can use to virtually take kids somewhere else, the interactive experiences are exceptional.

Read our review of National Geographic

Using National Geographic for virtual field trips:

Using a resource like Women: A Century of Change -- a photography exhibit celebrating women all over the world -- teachers can focus on history, social studies, photography, or some combination. Kids see a video introduction and then "walk" the halls viewing the photographs and reading the captions. Because the exhibit is broken into themed parts, teachers can assign specific chunks to groups to record their impressions and the photographs' links to history or culture. To practice writing, kids could focus on the section labels and write about how the photos embody characteristics of strength, joy, or beauty. Of course, students could create their own exhibits themed around your objectives. (Note: there's a brief flash of a photo of a naked woman in a bathtub holding her baby, though her full body isn't visible).

The exhibit featuring the world's largest cave is truly immersive and gives teachers lots to work with. With each click, you advance on your journey and can hear the sounds of each place. Students can read the sidebar to get more information about each section of the cave. This experience would be a great way to get kids excited about whatever scientific concepts you want to cover: cave features, biomes, unique habitats, geology, and more. It could also be a unique way to practice descriptive writing, focusing on sensory details.

Other interactive experiences to check out:

  • Ellis Island Tour from Scholastic - Clickable map, a video tour, photos, audio interviews with people who arrived on Ellis Island, archival video, interviews with young immigrants, a Teacher Activity Guide, and more.
  • Yosemite - Clickable map, immersive audio, and facts about each spot. The site also features some live webcams.
  • #metkids - Clickable map and a side bar that invites kids to watch a video, discover background information, imagine the history of artifacts, and create something themselves.

Using video visits for virtual field trips

Video visits can be a great option because they give teachers some flexibility around timing and delivery. They're similar to a guided tour that a class might get as a group, but you can pause it to break up the tour with discussions or activities. Because they aren't as text heavy, and because many video visits have a closed captioning option (that may or may not be translatable), they tend to be more accessible than many online exhibits or interactive explorations. Here are some great video visits to consider for your classroom:

Super Simple

Suggested grades: Kindergarten and first grade

Super Simple has a lot of great resources for little kids, including songs, activities, and printables. Caitie's Classroom is a collection of field trip videos that give kids a window into a wide variety of places and experiences, including things like a wind farm, a fire station, and an apiary. The videos are about four to eight minutes long, on average, and cover topics little kids love. Though they're colorful and cut from scene to scene, they're calmly paced. And Caitie is friendly and appealing, but not over-the-top goofy in an effort to keep kids' attention.

Using Super Simple for virtual field trips:

These mini-trips would be a way to break up the day and convey information about specific topics in a kid-friendly way. You could have a dino-themed day with dinosaur books and activities, and the field trip can be a transition from one part of the day to another. The field trip about bees and honey-making offers lots of opportunities for kids to learn: They can do a pollination activity, spreading glitter from one flower to another, and do a waggle dance!

NASA

Suggested grades: Elementary school

The website in its entirety has a ton to explore, including citizen science opportunities and STEM lessons, but the videos of astronauts in the space station are pretty stellar. Not only is it mind-blowing to see the astronauts actually floating around the station, but also they answer the questions everyone wants to ask (how do you go to the bathroom?) in a relatable way that humanizes abstract science. There are only four video tours of the space station itself, but they're packed with a lot of wide-ranging information.

Using NASA's website for virtual field trips:

These videos would work well after already introducing and delving into some substantive information about astronomy, space exploration, or the International Space Station itself. Once kids have some background about what astronauts are doing up there, they can choose an element that's particularly interesting to them, like the suits, the projects, or the living conditions. Discussions about space are also great opportunities to do some math, like what's the average number of days an astronaut spends on the space station. You could also put together an investigation of interesting places to live that aren't easily inhabited, like the Arctic, the desert -- and space.

Other video visits to check out:

  • Museum of the Revolutionary War - Videos about war including classroom kit featuring key vocabulary and discussion questions.
  • Tech Interactive - Video split into chapters that also has accompanying teacher materials. Kids follow their tween guides to see the exhibits and meet a diverse group of technologists and scientists who create and use all kinds of technology.
  • Jared Owens Animation YouTube Channel - Animations will take students to places in ways they can only go through his unique deconstruction of them. For instance, the video about the Burj Khalifa -- the tallest building in the world -- reveals the feats of engineering that made the structure possible.

Using scheduled and guided virtual field trips

Finally, if you want a virtual field trip that's scheduled and has a live guide to take your class through the experience, there are plenty to try. Just make sure you have a reliable internet connection!

Lead image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.