Yesterday, I went with my son Sam’s fourth-grade class on a field trip. We went to Madison on a bus. That’s more than four hours in a bus with 32 nine and ten-year-olds. If you haven’t thanked your kid’s teacher lately, you may want to consider doing that right this minute. It was a beautiful, and exhausting, day.
There were all kinds of fascinating things to learn and watch on the field trip. We went to the state capitol, and to a couple museums. But for me, the most entertaining and enlightening aspect of the trip was the kids themselves.
I had a group of five boys that I was responsible for. Five high-energy, curious, ever-moving, impressionable, and expressive boys: Cole, Gabe, Andrew, Ethan, and Sam. By the end of the day, we were a team, always looking out for one another. The rest of the kids orbited in and around all day, especially on the bus, where tight quarters can make for more intimate card games or books read or stories about our families.
Ten-year-olds have their own set of stresses and worries, their own social norms and acceptable-conduct code. They are also learning the norms and codes of the larger world, and the rules that are created, for the most part, by adults.
So it’s not that they are without stress or carefree or any of the other fantasies that adults sometimes pile on childhood. But ten-year-olds are also a rather expressive lot. They don’t necessarily have a lot of filters holding them back from saying what they think, from asking for what they want, from following every whim that enters their minds. Climb the capitol wall? Why not? Push the “speak” button on a senator’s desk? What could go wrong? It’s a beautiful thing to be a part of if you can remember how lovely it is to be that uninhibited.
And field trips are out of the ordinary, anyway. They are a time when the daily routine is broken and there is, perhaps, a less stringent adherence to the rules and regulations that are required in everyday live. Kids can move and explore new relationships, or strengthen the ones they have. Field trips are a time when a boy can maybe get a few minutes with a girl he’s been thinking about for weeks. A time when a girl can finally ask a boy a question she’s wanted to ask but couldn’t find the right moment. It’s a time when two girls can discover a common interest, two boys can figure out a game together. It’s a time and space away from regular life. The rules seem just a little bit different. And the magic that happens between humans is given a space and time.
I saw all these things happening with the fourth-graders, and I was impressed by the ways that this group rose to the occasion. They were respectful of each other, and still had room for gentle teasing and fun. They laughed and were eager to learn about a mining cave, to touch what could be touched, to fully absorb the idea of a historical teddy bear with bright blue hair, an old prize from a game at a county fair. The bear was a link to a previous life, a life not so unlike the children’s own lives.
They experienced all the exhibits fully—recoiling from a stuffed snake, delighting in a periscope that showed the world outside the museum, and touching in wonder the ancient fossils embedded into the marble walls of the capitol. Despite the rush around them, the cacophony of dozens of kids screaming through the halls, these kids were seeing, with each other, the world laid before them. They will take some part of that day with them through the rest of their lives. There was good information and interesting stories in the museums and the capitol.
But I suspect that what many of the kids will remember most is the time together on the bus. The time with the rest of their class, spending hours with no agenda, no place else to be, no lesson before them. Just each other, away from the daily routine, playing King’s Corners, and telling of world records, and of their brother or sister, and of the book they are reading, and what their favorite food is, and when their birthday is, and of all the conversations I wasn’t part of and that will forever remain a mystery to the adult world.
I suspect that what they’ll remember most is the connection they made with their friends, old and new, curled up next to each other, exhausted on the way home. Because having time with nothing else to do except be with other people can be such a great way for a kid—for anyone—to feel a part of the group, a part of something important, a part of the world. And that’s some of the best learning around.