Here's my philosophy to make the best of time spent driving kids to the zoo, the museum, wherever.
In my dreams, they are still coming down the sidewalk from school, their pigtails bobbing, their sneakers bouncing off the pavement as they half skip and half run to the curb. I, of course, am standing in a beam of sunlight, keys in hand, minivan door open, healthy snacks neatly packed in a cooler. It's my field trip group of third graders, about to line up next to my van for a trip to…. Where haven't I been with a carload of kids?
Sure, as those days retreat into my rear-view mirror, I recall them as more perfect than they were, but one thing I know is, those field trips were some of the best days of my children’s childhoods, both for me and for them. They’re all teenagers now, and their friends drive up to the house in their Toyota Matrixes or Honda Civics to take them wherever they feel like going. At school, the bus takes them on their out-of-school trips these days, and it has been a long time since I’ve been asked to drive on a field trip. But while it lasted, it is one of the great accomplishments I look back on, that I made room in my life to be a field trip driver.
Some of the regular trips I recall were to the natural history museum (a.k.a. the “Dinosaur Museum"), the assisted living facility where the students each had a "senior friend” to visit, the water treatment plant, the library for research projects and storytimes, the zoo, the nature center, and the Ann Arbor Art Association for snowflake projects. Some of the field trips involved a ten-minute drive and some a weekend. Some just involved me and my own kids, plus a friend or two. Some were formal trips where I was assigned to a group of classmates and given a route to follow.
From those many drives, I’ve created a list of Five Simple Rules for anybody else who dares to fill up his or her car, SUV, or minivan, and head off to youthful adventure with all the noise and craziness that entails. For those of you who have to take time off work to drive on a field trip, I have two words for you: Do it.
1. Adjust your expectations. If you are taking a school group, the teacher will probably assign you to drive a set group of kids. If your own kid is a boy, you’ll get him and three or four other boys, depending on your capacity. Same thing if your own kid is a girl: you’ll get a girl group. No matter which gender you’re driving, one of the kids will be rude and bossy, one will be the jokester, and one will be needy the whole time. Maybe some particularly gifted kid will combine two or more of those traits. (Maybe it will be your kid!) I so looked forward to the day I’d get a carload of girls with my daughter, after a few years of driving cars full of boys in her older brother’s class. (Example of boy behavior: I had to pull the car to the side of the road twice with fifth graders who wouldn’t stop screaming out the lyrics to “Air Force Ones” at ear-splitting volume. And don’t get me started on the body noises and dirty jokes.) Surprise! The groups of girls were actually more challenging on a drive, because they all have squeals and know how to use them, repeatedly.
Before you even start the car, have a short and simple list of rules, and make your passengers acknowledge and repeat them to you. Examples: “We don’t throw, toss, or chuck anything for any reason. We don’t scream. We put on our seatbelts and keep them on the whole time the car is moving.” However, do not expect silence or perfection. If you adjust your expectations and get ready to be calm, detached, and authoritative the whole trip, it will be much better than if you let them get to you. Being shrill or angry does not make things work better!
I remember a trip to an indoor water park on which one boy clung to me for an entire weekend, refusing opportunities to run off with the other kids or play what they were playing. I realized, halfway through, that he was just a lonely kid who didn’t know how to interact with the others. We found ways to have fun together, and by the end, he was playing a little more with the others. What if I had rejected him and pushed him away as the other kids tended to do? You want to come away feeling, “I’m so glad I was there,” and not, “Thank God that’s over with.”
2. Be prepared. The school will give you first aid equipment, probably, but bring water bottles, juice boxes, and small healthy snacks on your own. (Make sure the school is OK with what you are bringing, and don’t ever have something in your car that a peanut-allergic child might react to.) Also bring wet wipes, towels, and a couple of changes of clothes. Bloody noses happen, and so do traffic jams that delay your return. Bring music that everybody will enjoy listening to so your passengers don’t plug themselves in to their individual electronic devices. Do everything you can to make the driving experience a shared group experience, not an uncommunicative bunch of reduced-size commuters.
Being prepared also means having maps—the old-fashioned kind that fold. GPS and phones work up to a point, but backup maps have saved me more than once when I just needed to see a quick lay of the land.
3. Know your place. If you are running the field trip yourself—say if you are taking your own kids and their friends on a personal outing—you are the boss. In every other case, you are not. Don’t start bossing the kids in your car or making itinerary or schedule changes; defer 100 percent to the teacher or leader. This is harder than it sounds when you are taking your own child and his classmates somewhere! But you need to model deference and respect for your child’s teacher the whole time. Being a pain in the neck to the teacher will backfire down the line, for you and for your kid.
4. Know your stuff. Don’t just take the school-supplied map and follow the car in front of you. Find out about the place you are going, and know a little about what you’ll be doing. With the Internet, it’s not hard to go to the zoo website and check out the parking areas and the walking route. Extra credit for learning about the fish you’ll be seeing in the aquarium, not so you can bore the kids with your knowledge, but so you can answer questions if anybody has any.
5. Be there. Remember that the kids you’re taking on this trip are kids. They may have all kinds of bravado. They may behave with complete confidence and seem very independent. But don’t just get them to the door and then get back on your cell phone, or go off to gossip with the other field trip drivers.
Here is a story for you. A few years ago on a trip to Greenfield Village, I was standing near a large group waiting for a train. I noticed out of the corner of my eye when a tall, athletic boy teased a smaller, sensitive boy until he cried, then got a group of their classmates to notice and laugh at the crier. I got up in Athletic Boy’s face, and my son and his friends saw me do that and declined to go along with the bully. That was almost three years ago, and my son just mentioned it the other day.
Be on the field trip. Take pictures. Be the one standing there with the towel or cool drink when someone doesn’t yet know he or she needs it. Be the one who helps a wild kid express his exuberance appropriately. It will pay off if someday, in your dreams, you see what I see.