Summer Tips – Learning Excursions Close to Home

Tips for parents organising trips for kidsSummer is a great opportunity to prove the adage that real learning takes place outside the classroom.

Field trips, perpetually popular breaks from the regularity of the classroom during the school year, can also function as a break from the routine nonroutine of summer vacation. A place you drive by every day can become a world of wonders for your children once they’ve seen an inside view.

There’s a little legwork involved in setting up tours, but the results are worth it. You and your kids will have shared something new and everyone will learn something. Best of all, most tours are free, making for an educational experience and a good bargain rolled into one.

Don’t be limited by the itinerary we’ve assembled. Check your local phone book, chamber of commerce or tourist bureau. Or, cast about for a friend or friend of a friend who may be willing to guide you through a place that you or your child has wondered about.

Let your touring instincts be guided by your child’s interests, and don’t be put off by negative responses. We contacted four banks before finding one that gives tours, and we had no luck at all in locating a mechanic brave enough to let a group of kids into his shop.


Tour Etiquette

A field trip can be a great experience. A group being shown around a business gets to learn firsthand about how that business accomplishes what it does, whether it involves lending money or baking bread. Some facilities have full-time tour guides, but often employees are voluntarily taking time out of their workday to show you around.

As does any social situation, touring has its own etiquette. Some rules:

1. Be polite and be quiet!

Respectful, quiet and active listening are the most useful attributes of a winning tour group. You’re not just guests, you’re guests in a place of business. Phones may be ringing, people may be moving between work stations–you might even witness a crisis. If you have a question or concern, raise your hand to get your guide’s attention.

2. Keep everyone together.

Tour guides aren’t shepherds. Assigning kids a “buddy” to watch over is a good idea in all cases, but make sure you have enough adult chaperons ready to do any necessary behavior modification. Areas of a building may be restricted for any number of reasons; safety is often one of them. Make sure everyone you bring stays in his or her group.

3. If possible, do a little group research before your tour.

Your tour guide is aware that much or all of what you’re seeing is new, but knowing a little bit in advance will help your group get the most out of their tour experience. It may also enable them to ask meaningful questions.

4. Send a thank-you.

Kids love to give back and show what they’ve learned. Encourage this behavior by having some poster board and colored markers ready when you get home from your tour. Get the name of your guide and the person who arranged the tour. Have each kid write a sentence about what they liked best. (Kids too young to write can dictate.) Illustrations of what they saw are also fun for kids and very much appreciated by tour hosts. If possible, take the kids to the post office when you mail it.

Train Station

  • Age Range: Three and up
  • Ideal Group Size: Varies
  • Tour Length: 10 to 60 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Train station tour with the kidsAmtrak literature; John Miller, assistant general manager of customer services, suggests that parents give kids some background on the impact of transportation on daily life and provide specific information about the establishment of railroads near population centers.

In smaller stations, according to one station manager, “the majority of the tour is pretty much a group leader walking around the station, then one of us will take them on board a train and show them around.” Calling in advance to determine a nonbusy time of day will help assure that your cluster of kids gets to see the inside of a train. Larger cities may offer a more comprehensive tour. At Chicago’s Union Station, an organized hour-long tour geared toward kids ages eight to 16 includes a brief history of the station, and an overview of the operation and facilities.

Wastewater Treatment Plant

  • Age Range: Three to 11; 12 to adult
  • Ideal Group Size: 10
  • Tour Length: Varies

Best way to help kids prepare?

Most wastewater treatment plants have literature on hand. Videos geared for kids of different ages and handouts providing background for adults are also helpful.

“When people understand what goes on at a wastewater treatment plant,” says Joan McNamee, plant superintendent at the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, “they’re not as apt to flush weird things down the toilet.”

At Milwaukee’s two treatment plants, the hour-long tour geared for older children takes them through the four steps necessary to clean the water moving through the area’s sinks, toilets and bathtubs. The process varies from plant to plant, but basically you’ll see the solids separated from the liquids, after which the liquids are cleaned and disinfected before being sent back into the general water supply. With solids, as little as possible are released back into the water supply in order to keep oxygen demand in the water-providing streams at a minimum. Milwaukee’s solid waste gets a new lease on life as Milorganite, an organic fertilizer.

Steve Bruskiewicz, utility superintendent for the Village of Germantown, Wisconsin, and the father of a two-year-old who loves seeing Dad’s work site, recommends showing younger children lift stations. “Wastewater flows by gravity to certain points, and a lift station has to literally pick up the water and lift it to a higher point so it can flow again, kind of like a sump pump in a home,” he says. They can lift water 20 feet or push it half a mile, depending on size.


  • Age Range: Four and up
  • Ideal Group Size: No more than 25
  • Tour Length: 30 to 45 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Fun bakery tours

At Great Harvest Bread Company, parents and teachers are asked to read THE LITTLE RED HEN to their children before they come in for a tour. Check out recipe books, such as COOKING WITH CHILDREN: 15 LESSONS FOR CHILDREN AGES 7 AND UP by Marion Cunningham.

At Great Harvest Bread Company, which has about 115 locations throughout the United States, kids start their tour in the mill room. There, they get to handle samples of wheat and see how a mill grinds the wheat into flour. From there, they go to the kitchen, where they see how wheat becomes dough. Then they move to a kneading table. At Great Harvest, bread is kneaded by hand. Tour guides explain the kneading process and why it’s important for helping bread rise. They then demonstrate how each loaf is decorated before being placed into a large, commercial oven. At the tour’s end, each child is given a cookie, a coloring book with the bakery’s weekly bread schedule and a free-loaf coupon to take home to parents. Great Harvest owner Rodd Hall cautioned that as a franchise operation, tours may vary from site to site.

Other ideas: A bakery more focused on cakes and pastries; a bakery where everything is done by machine rather than by hand.


  • Age Range: Preschool and up
  • Ideal Group Size: Five to 20
  • Tour Length: About 30 to 35 minutes but can be tailored to group needs

Best way to help kids prepare?

Bank tours are great for kids to learn during the holidaysTalk to them about different accounts you may have at your bank; read THE TOTALLY AWESOME MONEY BOOK FOR KIDS (AND THEIR PARENTS) by Adriane G. Berg and Arthur Berg Bochner (Newmarket Press, $10.95).

At Marshfield Savings Bank, a two-branch bank in a small central Wisconsin city, bank tours are a regular part of doing business. Todd Diedrich, vice president of lending, is one of the bank’s two main tour guides. (The other is vice president of operations.) After being introduced to bank staffers and receiving an overview of the roles and functions of tellers, loan officers and other personnel, kids get a full tour of the building.

They like the feeling of authority of being behind the counter,” says Diedrich. “We show them the cash vault where the money is kept and the vault where the loan files are kept.”

Kids also get up-close, side-by-side views of real and counterfeit currency, and machines that can count up to $1,000 in 15 seconds. Another high point is the executive boardroom, where Marshfield kids get to “sit in the chairs and bounce up and down.”

After a trip to the checking department and a brief lecture about money, the kids are presented with a few gifts–pad, paper, balloons and a key chain.

Car Dealership

  • Age Range: Preschool and up
  • Ideal Group Size: They’re used to classes but will adapt
  • Tour Length: 30 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Check out new car manuals, and magazine and TV advertising–particularly of the models you’ll be seeing on your tour. Older kids might get a kick out of Public Radio International’s , a syndicated call-in show for people having trouble with their cars or wondering what kind of a new car they should buy.

Often, kids are most fascinated by the service department, seeing the cars on hoists and in various other stages of repair. They learn what car owners are asked when they bring a car in for repair and also get to eye the body shop, where cars are pounded and painted to perfection. The tour also includes a stroll through the sales department, where the staff apprises future shoppers on car-purchasing protocol.

Grocery Store

  • Age Range: Six and up
  • Ideal Group Size: Small; summer is a busy time for grocers
  • Tour Length: 30 to 45 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Read about food and nutrition; talk about where food comes from.

Grocers say kids are most fascinated by the sides of beef hanging in the meat department. They also like visiting the back storerooms piled high with boxes, viewing walk-in coolers stuffed with fresh fruits and vegetables (a good time to talk about that five-a-day rule, according to the grocer), and hearing about the way the food arrives at the store.

Humane Society

  • Age Range: Three and up
  • Ideal Group Size: Varies
  • Tour Length: 10 to 30 minutes, depending on shelter and tour age group

Best way to help kids prepare?

The Anti-Vivisection Society (800-SAY-AAVS) has published a book called SO YOU LOVE ANIMALS, which contains ideas on how kids can help animals. Local humane societies are good resources for books and other information.

At first glance, the biggest difference between the zoo and the humane society is that the animals at the latter can be taken home. If you’re thinking of a tour for really small children, Jill DeGrave, who handles educational programming at the Wisconsin Humane Society, recommends that parents simply walk through the adoption areas, looking at the different animals.

“Talk about pet care,” she says. “Look at the animals. You can do a lot of cool things with kids, and get them brainstorming and thinking about why a particular animal might be here.”

The Milwaukee shelter doesn’t give tours, says DeGrave, because the building isn’t in the best shape. But shelters that do give tours might show their young visitors the animal intake area, where stray animals and those being given up by present owners are processed. (In Milwaukee, a glass window in the lobby area gives visitors the chance to witness spay-neuter surgeries as they happen.) The veterinary clinic could also be a stop. Some shelters have special areas for injured wild animals.

Other issues raised by Humane Society trips include the history of the humane movement (Harry Berg, a 19th-century American, pioneered the movement out of concern for horses), pet overpopulation and the responsibilities pet owners take on when they bring a companion animal into their lives. If your tour group is comprised of older children, euthanasia may be addressed.


  • Age Range: Age range: Nine and up
  • Ideal Group Size: 15 or fewer
  • Tour Length: 45 minutes to 1 hour

Best way to help kids prepare?

Newspaper kids tour during summer breakRead the paper of the building you’re touring. You can also read other newspapers or find out how kids across the country are covering the news. In the news and editorial sections, pay attention to who wrote the stories, who took the pictures and what, if any, different cities or countries they came from. Look also at advertising, both classified and display. Notice whether or not the newspaper has color on its pages.

A newspaper tour covers the soup-to-nuts view of how a paper is put together. Kids will get to walk through different departments, among them news, photo, advertising and graphic arts. In many cities, the papers are laid out on computer screens, using a process called pagination. Most kids are dazzled by the press, which is big, fast and loud, spitting out thousands of neatly folded newspapers in a few minutes’ time. Many newspapers give out miniature copies to children coming through their buildings.

Post Office

  • Age Range: Three to eight; nine and up
  • Ideal Group Size: By arrangement
  • Tour Length: 10 to 30 minutes; 60 to 90 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Fact sheets can be sent to you on request by the post office you’re visiting, in advance of your tour.

The post office offers two different types of tours, depending on your location and the age level of the children. For younger kids, Ken Plummer, customer relations manager for the Milwaukee Post Office, recommends a tour of a small local station or branch office.

“It mainly deals with the mailman getting the mail and setting it up for delivery, how the carriers load their vehicles and what happens when a load of mail comes in the back door,” he says. “For older kids, you can get a mail processing tour at the main post office, which shows the entire mail processing system.”

That tour, which lasts an hour or more, includes a view of the back dock where mail first arrives. The tour then follows what happens before it gets to its final destination. Expect your kids to add to their vocabulary terms like advanced facer canceller (a machine that can locate a stamp in any of the four corners on an envelope), optical scanner reader and bar code sorter.

To arrange a tour, call the post office you want to visit, says Plummer.

Recycling Center

  • Age Range: Age range: Seven and up
  • Ideal Group Size: Varies
  • Tour Length: Varies, but no longer than 20 minutes

Best way to help kids prepare?

Collect some aluminum cans to take along; read up on recycling.

Mountains of metal in various stages of decomposition, grit and heavy machinery make for an impressive landscape at a recycling center. A truck-sized scale, massive magnets hovering off of cranes, and the aluminum-can baler are just a few of the sights that will leave your child wide-eyed. But don’t look for used car parts. A recycling center is a different animal than an auto salvage yard.

“They all used to be called junkyards, but when the auto salvage industry became so big, it split,” says Arlene Peltz, a partner in Midwest Iron and Metal, which gives tours to Cub Scouts and other groups. “We’re a processor of ferrous and nonferrous metals. We ship to foundries, smelters and refineries throughout the United States.”

The main thrust of a Peltz tour is recycling. “We explain to them that the new concept in today’s society is to be more thrifty and to prepare for the future,” she says. “Part of that is to be able to recycle so that material can be used over and over again.”