There’s so much for kids to explore in nature, from bird watching to fossil hunting. The best part is that you don’t have to travel to a national park or exotic location to experience nature’s beauty. Discovering what lives and thrives in nature can be as easy as stepping out into your own backyard or walking down the street to the local park. Here, Ranger Mac will focus on the trails animals leave behind in nature and show how easy it is for you and your children to track them right from your own green space. So grab your sunscreen and hats, head out the door, and see how your kids enjoy animal tracking!
Why Track Animal Prints with Kids?
There are several reasons why you should take your kids outside and teach them some basic animal tracking skills:
- It gives kids an incentive to go outside.
- It lets kids take the lead and problem solve in nature.
- It gives them a chance to use critical thinking skills and scientific inquiry.
- It teaches them to be aware of their surroundings and the creatures that live within it.
- It connects them with nature in a very hands-on way.
- It helps them appreciate the natural world around them.
Looking for Clues
As you go outside and start to focus on tracking animals, here are some basic clues you can look for that will help you identify the types of animals in your area:
Prints - Look at the size and shape of the individual prints to get a basic idea of what type of animal you’ve found. Look for claw marks or hoof shapes, and count the number of toes or toe pads. The depth of the print can tell you something about the size and weight of the animal. Then check a field guide (or your smartphone) to see if you can identify the animal by these facts.
Feather Marks - If there is snow on the ground, it’s fascinating to look at feather imprints and little hopping bird footprints. Depending on your area, you could find some turkey tracks or see the swooping imprint of an owl that flew down to grab some food.
Gait Patterns - A gait is the way a creature walks, and different gaits leave different types of animal tracks. The patterns could show whether the animal was walking, sprinting, or bounding. Also whether or not the footprints line up with each other or are askew can reveal the type of animal that left them. A field guide is helpful here to show the gait patterns of different animals.
Scat – Scat, or animal poop, is what’s left behind after an animal digests its meal, and it can be very helpful for identification. Not only does the size and shape reveal the species that left the scat behind, but it’s also fun for kids to grab a stick, break it open, and try to identify the animal based on the contents found within!
What You’ll Need
Now that you know some basics on how to look for tracking clues, it’s time to prepare for your outdoor journey with your child to get ready to investigate. A great thing about learning to track animals is that you don’t need any fancy equipment. You can even get started for free! You just need either a connection to the Internet or some good library books to double check your guesses and the willingness to explore. If you do want a bit more equipment, here are some ideas of what you can use to track animals with your children:
- Smartphone - This is a great resource to use to help identify the tracks on the go and to log what you find.
- Field Guide - If you like looking things up in a physical book, field guides are amazing resources for outdoor exploration. They’re also necessary if you aren’t able to rely on your phone or can’t get reception in the area.
- Nature Journal - Have your child take notes and make sketches of the observations they make.
- Magnifying Glass - Get a closer look at the nature around you.
- Binoculars - Get a closer look at the nature that’s far away from you.
- Flashlight - In case you wander into a darker area or you’re out searching late into the evening.
Once you’ve got the basics of tracking down, you can sit down with your child and come up with some fun activities to do that will add to your outdoor experience. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Wait for a fresh dusting of snow that’s about 1 to 2 inches deep. This is when it’s easiest to find animal tracks.
- Make a tracking plot in your yard. Dig a small path about 1 inch deep and fill it in with some sand or soft dirt. This will let you see what kinds of nocturnal animals come out at night, since you’ll be able to see their tracks more clearly the following morning. Set up a plot in each season to see the different tracks you can spot at different times in the year.
- Create a scavenger hunt. Rush around the yard trying to find all the tracks, feathers, nests, and other indicators before the rest of the family does. Remind your child to leave bird and animal homes just the way you found them.
There are so many online resources your family can use to help you track the animals in your area and log what you find. Here are a few sites that can help you get started:
Appalachian Mountain Club (Enter the word tracking in the search bar.)
U.S. Geological Survey (Learn to make a plaster cast of any tracks you find in the wild!)
There are many species native to each area of the US, and there are new tracks to find all throughout the year. This is a great way to get your kids outside and help them enjoy the nature around them. Get outside and start exploring today!
If you need more incentive to get your family outdoors, read up on the many benefits of spending time in nature here!