By Bethany Bray
---- — TOPSFIELD — What can you learn at the Topsfield Fair? A lot, if you’re one of the 14,000 youngsters who will come to the Route 1 fairgrounds this year on school field trips.
From sheep-shearing demonstrations to learning how seeds germinate, the fair’s growing field trip program teaches students through fair exhibits and special lessons on agriculture.
“Some of them never, ever get to do anything like this,” said Maureen Gauthier, a second-grade teacher at Salem’s Witchcraft Heights Elementary, as she watched some of her students hold just-hatched chicks in the poultry barn.
“This is one of those experiences you can’t teach in a classroom,” she said. “This is a huge learning experience for them ... They’ve been so excited about everything we’ve done today.”
The Topsfield Fair has welcomed school field trips for years, but the program has expanded and grown in the last five years. This year, the highest number ever of private and public school students will visit the fair on field trips.
Volunteers from the Essex Agricultural Society, the nonprofit group that owns and operates the fair, lead lessons for the visiting school groups — on gardening, keeping honeybees, growing giant pumpkins and other topics. Students also tour the fair’s agricultural exhibits, including the rabbit, sheep, cattle, beekeeping, fruit/vegetable and other barns.
“I didn’t know that cows were that big — humongous!” said Samantha Chasse, a Witchcraft Elementary second-grader. Samantha said her favorite part of the day was a gardening lesson, where they were given beans to take home and plant.
Children on school field trips are admitted to the fair free of charge and are given lunch during their visit. A fair spokesperson said they prepare and serve 400 to 500 student lunches each weekday.
Kate O’Brien, Topsfield Fair education and outreach coordinator, said she starts planning the fair’s field trip schedule over the winter and contacts local schools in the spring. Field trip programming dovetails with school curriculum and MCAS test standards, she said.
“Each group gets an individualized itinerary,” said O’Brien, who is also a sixth-grade special-education teacher at Higgins Middle School in Peabody.
On a recent afternoon, chaperones and students wearing name tags walked between fair exhibits, collecting stamps from each stop on their fair maps. Some stopped into the draft horse show in the arena or ate their lunches at outdoor picnic tables.
Marie DiMare, a second-grade teacher at Thorpe Elementary School in Danvers, said the fair’s map-based scavenger hunt tied into the mapping skills her students are learning in social studies.
“It’s an experience for the children to see the agricultural part of our community — a wonderful tie-in to living in New England,” DiMare said.
The 2013 Topsfield Fair runs through Columbus Day, Oct. 14.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.