The other morning Pat and I awoke like little children on Christmas day, as we were full of anticipation and excitement about the inch of fresh snow that fell overnight. The white landscape that we were greeted by made for the perfect “canvas” for wild creatures to paint their footprints on, and we were eager to go out and read the stories that were left behind in the night.
So we threw on our warmest clothes and ventured out into a winter wonderland, with our eyes mostly focused on the ground, looking for even the slightest imprints in the snow. We hoped to come across the footprints of any wild creature, but we were particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of finding coyote, fox, or even bobcat tracks. And we were eagerly seeking to find the tracks of our cat named Brother who wandered off into the woods two months ago and still has yet to return home!
We spent several hours wandering, pausing, and looking closely at the footprints left on top of snow-covered logs, under trees, and along forest paths. Occasionally we came across places where the trails of several different animals intersected with each other, which was really exciting!
With each set of footprints discovered, Pat and I took turns pointing out the different features of the tracks and drawing conclusions about which animals might have left them behind.
We eventually returned home feeling exhilarated, fulfilled, and full of wonder and curiosity about both solved and unsolved tracking mysteries. But most of all, we felt more deeply connected to the landscape, and to the animals that dwell there.
What I love most about tracking animals is that it's such an engaging activity. When I’m out there studying the footprints left on the landscape, something incredible occurs: My senses are sharpened and my brain shifts completely into the present moment. Actually, it’s one of the few instances where my brain chatter is fully switched into “OFF” mode. My “to-do” list is a distant memory, and I don’t even know where my cell phone is. All that seems to matter to me in those moments are the mysteries that lay on the ground before me.
To put it simply, tracking animals makes me feel more FULLY ALIVE!
What I find even more fulfilling is tracking animals with children. I love watching the curiosity, wonder, imagination, and excitement well up from within a child when they come across a big ‘ole animal track in the mud. They almost always assume that it was left behind by a bear or a wolf. Whether their assumption is accurate or not, I’m happy to see them so engaged and fully activated in their imagination. Their curiosity usually leads to further exploration and wandering, and before we know it, we’re out on an epic wild adventure full of magic and a sense of timelessness!
I think it's safe to say that tracking animals is good medicine for everyone.
Whether you’re a hardcore experienced tracker or it’s the first time you've ever really considered looking at the ground for footprints, I hope that you enjoy my list of 6 tips for making your time tracking with children engaging and educational.
6 Tips For Tracking Animals with Children:
Create a Master List of Species.
So.. you’re out there with your kids, and you’ve come across a set of really cool-looking, mysterious animal tracks. You’re curious about whose tracks you’ve found, but you’re feeling overwhelmed by the possibilities. This is where it’s helpful to have a Master List of Species, a comprehensive list of animals that live within the range of the area that you're studying.
The easiest way to compile this list is to refer to a field guide of mammals. (I suggest using Peterson Field Guide to Mammals of North America). As you flip through the pages, examine the range maps for each species, and jot down a list of all the mammals whose ranges fall within your area.
This can be a fun and educational activity to do with your children. It can take a little while to compile this list, and you may want to spread the task out over the course of a few days or weeks, rather than doing it all at once. Approaching this challenge with curiosity and wonder can go a long way.
If you have a younger child, they may not have the attention span or patience to follow along with you in this activity for a very long time, and that’s okay. Even just their simple act of witnessing your engagement in this task can be profound. When children see the adults in their lives cultivating a relationship with field guides—pouring over range maps, examining these volumes of naturalist wisdom with authentic curiosity—they are inevitably learning from this experience as well. We consider this an example of “the invisible school” (a blog topic for another day!), which is a key component of creating a culture of nature connection.
Once you’ve finished your Master List of Species, use it as a reference the next time you and your kids come across any mysterious tracks in the woods. Figuring out who left those tracks behind may not feel so overwhelming anymore!
2. Start Journaling.
I had the pleasure of studying tracking with some incredible mentors, most notably master trackers Dave Moskowitz and Marcus Reynerson. Whenever my classmates and I would stumble upon a set of tracks that we found perplexing, Dave and Marcus would encourage us to start journaling. By “journaling” they were referring to the process of drawing the tracks, taking measurements, and jotting notes about where the track was found (maybe even sketching a little map!), what time of day it was found, and what other signs were left behind by this animal (i.e. scat, evidence of feeding, bedding areas, dens, scrapes).
I must admit, at times this process felt tedious and unnecessary. Sometimes I just wanted to know WHO left the tracks, and I didn't feel like going through this whole “song and dance” of journaling. But in the end I always benefitted from those journals, as they allowed me to create a relationship with the tracks and they helped me a lot with identification. Putting my pencil to paper with intention of replicating what I actually saw in front of me made me look more deeply at those footprints. I had to ask myself things like, Is that really a toe? Is there really a claw mark there? Am I drawing what I’m really seeing, or what I want to be seeing?
Journaling with children can be a really fun activity, and I encourage you to get creative with it. Once again, it’s all about creating a relationship with the tracks. Journaling animal tracks can be a more open and artistic activity for younger kids, or a more cerebral, academic activity for older kids. Or it can be a combination of both. Consider where your child is at: what will inspire and motivate them? What will shut them down and make them feel overwhelmed?
I’ve found that some children just love bringing their own nature journal with them on adventures. They seize every opportunity to draw and write about anything interesting that they cross paths with. While others are just not interested in having a journal at all. So I leave the journaling option open, but I like to model the process of journaling when I’m hanging out in nature with kids, because it’s an art that inspires me personally.
3. Practice “Air Sculpting”.
How big is the animal who left behind the set of tracks that you’ve stumbled upon? Size can surely help narrow down identification possibilities. If you’ve found a set of four tracks from one animal (fronts and hinds) try “sculpting” the air with your hands to approximate the size of the animal in relation to it’s tracks. Present your child with the opportunity to practice “air sculpting” as well. This gives them the space to use their imagination and to picture that creature in their mind’s eye. Perhaps they can visualize the animal’s legs in relationship to the rest of its body, the size of its feet, the shape of its head, etc. I’ve found children to be pretty spot-on when it comes to approximating the size of an animal through “air sculpting”.
4. Engage in the Art of Questioning.
Asking questions has the capacity to draw out curiosity, imagination and attention to detail. Questions can also be a bit too overwhelming and cerebral for some children, depending on their age and stage of development. When I’m tracking with older children, I find myself posing more direct questions, i.e. Who do you think left this track? What was the animal doing? When I’m with younger kids, I tend to use the phrase “I wonder” instead: I wonder who left this track. . . I wonder if it was a wild dog or a domestic dog. . . I wonder if this dog was running. . . etc. In this case it’s more of a musing rather than an inquisition.
Either approach can invite reflection, inspire closer attention to detail, and help to deepen awareness. As always, it’s best to meet your kids where they’re at and explore that balance between enhancing the educational value of tracking while avoiding pressing so much that it shuts the child down. Here are some questions/musings that you may want to contemplate while investigating a mysterious footprint with children:
• Who - Who left this track?
• What - What was the animal doing?
• When - When was it here?
• Where - Where was it going? Where did it come from?
• Why - Why was it here?
• How - How is it to be this animal, to see through its eyes?
5. Imitate Animals through Movement.
Mimicking a creature’s movement is an effective way to cultivate empathy towards animals and deepen understanding around tracking without getting too “heady”. Instead of simply discussing with your child how you think a squirrel was moving, for example, demonstrate those movements with your own body. Imitate how you think the squirrel was scurrying along, how it was collecting Douglas Fir cones, how it was feeding on seeds. Have your child follow along, and take turns leading this imitation through movement. This can be a playful way to shift the energy and get the blood flowing while stepping into the “shoes” of a creature.
6. Plaster Cast an Animal’s Track.
Plaster casting animal tracks is one of our students’ favorite activities. They love being able to preserve footprints to add to their “nature museum”. All you need for this activity is Paster of Paris, water, a plastic container or ziplock baggie, and a stick for stirring.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1: Locate some clear, crisp animal tracks (firm mud or wet sand are ideal substrates for this. Plaster casting in snow is impossible, unfortunately!) and carefully remove any leaves or twigs that may have fallen into the footprints.
Step 2: Without disturbing the track, dig a little “dam” or wall around it so that the plaster has a boundary.
Step 3: Mix two parts Plaster of Paris with one part water in your cup or bag. You’ll want achieve a smooth, pancake-batter consistency. If the mixture is too runny or too thick, then it won’t mold the track very well. Kids usually love to help with the mixing (“Let’s make pancake batter!”). Just be sure to mix only as much as you need, since the plaster starts to harden right away and it can’t be reused.
Step 4: Gently pour the mixture into the track and make sure it’s spread evenly.
Step 5: Allow for your cast to dry fully. The amount of time this takes varies greatly depending on temperature and humidity. Here in the cold and wet PNW, plaster can take up to an hour to dry in winter.
Step 6: Once your cast is dry and firm, gently dig around it and lift it up from the substrate. Brush away any remaining debris. Add the casted track to your nature museum and enjoy! (Warning: plaster casts are very delicate, please handle them with care!)
Now that I’ve shared my tips for tracking with children, I’d love to hear from you!
Got a tracking story to share? Found a mysterious footprint while exploring the woods with your family??
Please comment below!
P.S. It’s not too late to enroll your child in our Forest Kindergarten Winter Session!