Geography fieldwork – Give primary pupils a skills-packed experience

Gather your maps and head outside to give pupils a meaningful geography experience they won’t soon forget…

Julia Mackintosh
by Julia Mackintosh
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Many of us can remember very little about the geography we studied at primary school, whereas geography fieldwork trips to the local river, town or even (in my own case) the sewage works can be the exception to this rule.

However, the importance of engaging in fieldwork in the primary phase goes beyond providing memorable experiences.  

Well-designed fieldwork has the potential to inspire in pupils a curiosity and fascination about the world. It develops an appreciation of other people’s values and attitudes, and offers opportunities to master key geographical skills. 

Fieldwork is one of the signature pedagogies of geography. However, Ofsted’s ‘Geography in outstanding primary schools’ blog (2020) notes that subject inspections highlight that many primary pupils have weak geographical skills due, in part, to a paucity of meaningful fieldwork. 

Here are some practical pointers that geography subject teams can apply to kickstart fieldwork planning and delivery… 

Fieldwork planning

Co-planning sequences of lessons between subject leaders and teachers that include fieldwork is very useful.

It provides the opportunity to discuss the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of geography, as well as ideas about enquiry-based approaches to learning.

It’s important not to lose sight of the aims of the curriculum; refer back to the ‘big ideas’ of geography and familiarise each other with key concepts.

For example, before visiting a locality, pupils can use maps and aerial photographs to find out ‘Where is this place?’ (key concept: space), and ‘How does my view of this place change when I zoom in and out?’ (key concept: scale).  

During their visit, pupils can investigate: ‘What is this place like?’, ‘What kind of physical and human features does it have?’ or ‘How do I feel about this place?’.

Activities back in the classroom can help pupils to consider ‘How is this place changing?’ or ‘How does it compare to other places?’ (key concept: place and environment). 

Five important questions

As Simon Catling and Tessa Willy say in Understanding and Teaching Primary Geography, there are five key questions to consider when planning fieldwork: 

  1. What is the purpose of the fieldwork, and why is it included in this topic? 
  1. What types of data are to be gathered and in what form (e.g. mapping, taking photographs, counting)? 
  1. Given the pupils’ age and experience, what skills and techniques will help them to gather the data? 
  1. Which of these skills can they already use and which are new to them? 
  1. How do pupils build on what they can do already? How will they develop and apply new skills or techniques?  

Asking these questions can prompt conversations about how to build upon pupils’ prior experiences, and when and how to introduce new concepts and skills. 

You can also consider opportunities for children make use of the skills learned in different subjects.

For example, you might give thought to how data handling techniques learned in maths can be applied to design questionnaires, tallies, tables or graphs; and how features of persuasive arguments or non-chronological reports learned about in English can be used by pupils to share their fieldwork findings.  

Geography fieldwork investigation

In undertaking fieldwork, children should be encouraged to adopt an ‘enquiry approach’, where investigation questions are driven by a genuine ‘need to know’.

Support pupils to answer questions using evidence in the form of numerical data, observations, and opinions from people or other artefacts, and to use geographical skills to analyse, describe, classify, and explain findings and patterns.

Finally, encourage them to reflect on their findings, communicating what they have learned and evaluating the whole process.  

It’s also ideal to plan fieldwork activities that seek to solve real-life problems, with a genuine purpose, audience and outcome.

This is not only highly motivating for pupils, but helps them understand what it means to ‘behave like a geographer’. It also allows them to be active citizens, caring for and having a say in how their local environment in maintained. 

Classroom activities

Fieldwork gives pupils authentic learning experiences. But as easy as it is to get carried away about the fieldwork, there is essential work to be done in the classroom beforehand. 

Initial classroom-based activities might include the use of maps and aerial photographs to locate and initially investigate the chosen place.

You could follow this up with lessons about how to collect data in the field, and practising these skills.

Also, ‘walking through’ planned fieldwork activities together with pupils and adult helpers before leaving the classroom ensures that everyone understands the fieldwork aims.

Using photographs of the route to the fieldwork venue and place itself can highlight safety issues relating to traffic and other possible hazards. Using ‘social stories’ can help children to understand who and what they will see.  

Providing adult helpers with a list of key questions will help support focused discussion during fieldwork activities. 

Engaging with fieldwork on this level illustrates that geography is concerned with asking questions about the world and developing the skills needed to answer them.

So let’s go outside! 

Practical activities


What would the Naughty Bus see in our school?

Read Naughty Bus by Jan and Jerry Oke. Explore the outdoor area, noting and naming features the Naughty Bus might see. Follow a photo trail to find hidden toys.

Year 1

How does our school change with the seasons?

Visit one place in the school grounds four times over the year. Observe weather and seasonal change, focusing on deciduous trees or plants. Record changes using digital photographs and/or collections of natural objects.

Year 2

How do we feel about the local park?

Follow a route to and from the local park, observing physical and human features. Note how people use this place and express personal feelings using happy/sad faces and plot on a map.

Year 3

How are rocks used in our local area?

Follow a predefined route around the local area and identify the location of rocks used in buildings/natural features. Record these features using a digital mapping package.

Year 4

How does our local river change from the source to the sea?

Using OS maps, trace the route of a local river, identify the source and key features. Visit the river, and make annotated drawings to record river features. Collect data about river flow and the shape of the channel.

Year 5

What is changing in our local area?

Using local news reports, investigate a current local issue, e.g. a new housing development. Collect data using photographs, questionnaires, tallies and record findings using charts, graphs and maps. Suggest possible future changes.

Year 6

How can we make the school grounds more sustainable?

Pupils design enquiry questions to investigate how the sustainability of the school might be improved. E.g. biodiversity, use of resources, pollution. They also design and use tools to collect data and present findings to the headteacher.

From ‘Geography’ by Julia Mackintosh and Martin Sutton in Essential Subject Knowledge for Primary Teaching, ed Nasreen Majid (Sage, 2023).

Julia Mackintosh is a postgraduate primary tutor and subject lead for primary geography at the University of Hertfordshire. She is also a subject consultant for primary geography at NASBTT, where she supports Subject Development Resources for trainee teachers and early career teachers. 

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