So, you’re thinking of taking your class to a natural history museum for a field trip, but not quite sure what you need to do to prepare your students. Depending on which museum you visit, you may be able to get a guided tour or you may be doing a self-guided visit. The self-guided visits can be great to ensure that students get a chance to see all parts of the museum that interest them, but it can be very overwhelming when students are visiting without any tasks. In this post, I provide some easy curriculum ideas for before a field trip and ideas for engaging, self-guided activities during your museum visit.
Before you visit the natural history museum.
A great way to introduce your upcoming field trip is to answer the question, “What goes on at a natural history museum?”. Students will probably only be exposed to the cool exhibits and displays on the face of the museum, but there are just as many interesting things going on behind the scenes. This TED-Ed video is an excellent start to answer many questions and create student curiosity about what they’ll see at the museum. You can also refer back to this video when students inevitably ask if an animal is real or why it is dead and now in the museum. (Bonus: TED-Ed has an entire lesson based around this video if you want to simply start there. You can also use these videos to create lessons of your own. Check it out here.)
Encourage new ways to explore.
In most natural history museums, you cannot touch the objects. This restriction can be frustrating especially for young, tactile learners. Instead, introduce new ways for students to explore in the museum. Allow them extra time to look, listen, and even smell in the various exhibits. Here are two additional techniques to allow exploration.
Compare & Contrast: For young students, encourage them to compare and contrast the displays to their own experience or even their own body. For example, when you see the leg bone of giant dinosaur, ask students to measure their own leg bone and then compare that to the size of the dinosaur. This method will allow observation and connections when the ability to get physically close to the objects is restricted.
Embodiment: Encourage students to become the animal they are observing at the museum. If you see an animal in a pose with its mouth open and teeth showing, the students can act the same and imagine why the animal is doing that kind of pose. Or you can explain how an animal moves by allowing students to mimic the movements. For example, “Dinosaurs are actually walking on their tiptoes, can you do that?” Or, “Snakes slither, show me how you think they move.”
Tip: Practice these techniques in the classroom before your visit so students can easily use them again at the museum when exploring.
Provide structure for self-guided tours
Self-guided programs can be just as rewarding as visits with a museum educator. However, I often see teachers zoom through halls in order to see everything without giving students a real chance to explore and learn. Instead, use one of these simple activities to let students explore with a purpose. All of these activities could be modified for different ages, but I have split them up based on what I think would work best.
- Give small groups of students a colour and have them write or draw as many objects (animals, plants, gems, minerals, etc) of that colour that they can find. If you are already familiar with the museum, ask for students to find one object in each exhibit hall.
- Find examples of teeth that are sharp for eating meat and flat for eating plants. Ask students to find other similarities between these animals (size, colour, shape etc.)
- Pick several animals and find clues to understand what habitat they call home. This activity could be especially beneficial in a diorama hall where animals are seen in their habitat. Compare and contrast animal adaptations and their environments. For example: “The giraffe has a long neck and eats leaves from trees. Would a giraffe’s long neck be beneficial in the desert where the plants are short? “
- Similar to the habitats activity above, find examples of adaptations for the same behaviour in different animals. For example, how many different animals have adaptations for living in or around water? (Look for flippers, webbed feet, skinny feet for marsh lands). Add in comparisons between modern and extinct animals for an extension with older age groups.
- Identify examples of family groups in different animals. Students can identify what part of the life cycle the animals are in or make comparisons between adult and young animals to exemplify how traits are passed between parents and offspring.
- Draw a potential food web for animals across several exhibits. It could be a real food web or a potential one if animals from different habitats come together. (This would emphasize the similar function of animals across habitats i.e. predator, prey, decomposer, primary producer etc). Or, create extinct food webs using dinosaurs!
Hypothesize what would happen if the environment depicted in an exhibit or diorama would change. This activity could be a simple question and discussion or a chance for students to write and explore ideas on their own.
I hope this list gives you a few more ideas of how to maximize your time at the natural history museum. I intentionally left many details out since each museum and class is unique. If you use any of these ideas and create an entire lesson, please let me know! I’d love to hear and share your ideas.
Do you need more ideas? Contact me! I’d love to help you get started with your natural history museum visit.