Field Trip!

Education experts help children, their teachers, parents and grandparents get the most out of a museum visit - real or virtual

The Smithsonian Castle
The Smithsonian Castle iStock / OlegAlbinsky

Few words from a teacher stir as much excitement as “field trip.” Students always love the chance to break away from the books and go sightseeing. Enjoyable exhibitions and promoting the powerful synergy of curiosity, learning and fun are of course a big part of what the Smithsonian is all about. This synergy is indeed the goal of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies (SCEMS) as it helps children as well as their teachers, parents and grandparents take meaningful trips—whether real or virtual—to Smithsonian museums and others around the country. With dozens of publications, lesson plans and teachers’ guides, kids’ activities and links on its highly acclaimed Web site (, the center offers resources galore.  New this year is another Web site ( with digitized primary and other sources, such as video clips, for teachers of American history.

And teachers should have their own field trips. Last October, at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, 2,000 teachers from more than 20 states attended Smithsonian Teachers’ Night, organized by SCEMS to introduce them to the educational resources available here. Attendees met representatives from Smithsonian museums and many of the Institution’s research divisions, talked to authors of recently published books and collected everything from in-depth lesson plans to handy museum guides. Now in its 14th year, Teachers’ Night has become increasingly popular; last year, the free event was filled soon after the center began accepting reservations. Similar events at Smithsonian Affiliate museums and summer workshops are also quickly filled.

Yet Teachers’ Night is only one small part of what the center achieves each year. It reaches millions of teachers and parents, and through them tens of millions of children. SCEMS publishes e-newsletters and Smithsonian in Your Classroom, a full-color, lavishly illustrated magazine that can be downloaded from and is distributed free of charge to every elementary and middle school in the country twice a year. Recent issues focused on the art of portraiture and the tradition of Native American doll-making. One issue was chock-full of ideas to help teachers enliven their history lessons with evocative and well-chosen primary sources, from photographs to period advertisements. This spring’s issue shows how to teach poetry with the help of music available through

Recognizing the importance of learning from family members, the center created the Grandparents’ Guide to the Smithsonian, a practical collection of tips on how to enrich any pan-generational visit. It also conducts research with the educational departments of Smithsonian museums to help them increase the appeal and effectiveness of their activities. But the center reaches far beyond the Institution’s literal walls to the more than 100 Smithsonian Affiliate museums; informs visitors about “family-friendly exhibits across the nation,” such as a show at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore called “32 Terrific Teeth” that invites visitors to play a “Tooth Jukebox.”

The center’s Web site also offers on-line activities—IdeaLabs, based on Smithsonian collections and research; Artifact & Analysis, a publication for Advanced Placement students that teaches American history by interpreting the meaning of objects such as Barbie Dolls; and Smithsonian Kids, a wild and colorful on-line destination where kids can “discover fast, fun, cool, scary, patriotic, and beautiful things at the Smithsonian.” If they’d like to tell their friends about their virtual field trip, they can send “e-cards”—“e” for e-mail but also for entertaining and, of course, educational.

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