Virtual Reality Field Trips for Young Learners

How can you connect students to the far-off places you teach about? Of course we wish we could load students onto buses or planes and take them to rainforests, deserts, and mountains. But, you can also create immersive, sensory experiences by using 360° virtual reality in your classroom.

If you think you don’t have enough time or your students are too young, think again! As part of my National Geographic Educator Certification, I used virtual reality (VR) in a Kindergarten science unit about animal habitats. I wanted my students to feel what it would be like to live as their favorite animal. So, with a bit of pre-planning and just one device, it took me half of two science periods for all 22 kiddos to visit the habitat of their chosen animals. A video detailing my lesson is below and featured on the National Geographic Education blog

Ready to take your class on a virtual field trip in three easy steps? Seatbelts, everyone!

First, download a VR app onto you smartphone device (and/or students’ devices) and search for 360° photos and videos related to your units. You can also ask your colleagues or community to lend or donate unused devices. Each device will need a wi-fi connection.

There are so many on the app stores, here are a few good free ones:

  • Google Expeditions: designed specifically for education, students view device in the headset while you guide them from your device through various scenes and ask provided questions
  • Google Street View: pick or search any location with existing 360° footage

  • Discovery VR: watch short pre-made videos about various topics

Then, you'll need to obtain one VR headset for each device. My students took turns; I had just my own phone and one headset. Basic models cost $7-15 such as Google Cardboard, which work just as well as $15-30 models made of plastic. You do not need fancy, pricier headsets designed for gaming. And while not immersive, all 360° experiences can also be viewed without a headset.

One of my former Kindergarten students transported to his animal's habitat.  Photo by Alison Travis.

One of my former Kindergarten students transported to his animal's habitat. Photo by Alison Travis.

Finally, plan out when students will engage with VR. You may want to conduct a whole-group lesson, then call individual students over for just a few minutes while the rest of the class does independent work. When I used VR with my Kindergarten class, I pre-grouped them into one of five habitats. You can also have all students go to the same location for their virtual field trip.

Using VR increases engagement far beyond reading books and watching videos. Students fill in the other sensory inputs with their imagination: they can feel the mist on their skin, smell salty ocean air, and hear birds chirping. We all know the more real and personal the experience, the deeper the learning. Try it and let me know how it goes!