I used to think of animal tracking as a skill reserved for hunters and hardcore naturalists. But lately, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s one of the most simple things we as parents can do to connect our children with nature in a way that engages both body and mind.
The best part is that you don’t need to be an expert to track animals, as long as you’re equipped with some curiosity about the natural world. See it as an opportunity to learn alongside with your child!
Animal tracking can be done any time of the year but snow makes it a little bit easier. My 6-year-old, the Big Naturalist, has been especially keen to take on the role of detective after every snowfall lately, and has proudly identified and followed both squirrel, dog and deer tracks on her own.
Why track animals with your child?
- It connects your child to nature in a very direct and hands-on way
- It teaches your child to be aware of their surroundings and the creatures that live there
- It gives your child a chance to use critical thinking skills and scientific inquiry methods
- It gives your child a chance to experience nature with both body and mind
- It’s an incentive for both you and your child to learn about different animal species in your area
- It offers an opportunity for your child to take the lead and grow with the task
- It’s an incentive to go outside
- It’s fun!
Animals offer many clues about their whereabouts besides paw prints. If you look closely, you may find scats, fur, feathers, nests, skulls and bones, trails and chew marks, and other things that an animal has left behind. Try to engage as many senses as you can during your exploration. Can you see where the deer bucks have rubbed their antlers? Do you hear any squirrels rustling in the leaves? Can you smell the hollow tree where the raccoon sleeps? What does the turkey vulture’s feather feel like?
A good place to start is where animals feed, drink, bathe or gather. You also need a good medium for the tracks to show. Snow makes the tracks easy to follow and is maybe the best medium of all, but mud, damp soil and sand are other excellent surfaces. Damp woods, shady trails, seashores, and near creeks and river banks are places where animals are both likely to be and leave tracks.
Animal tracking can be done with no equipment at all. But if you want to step it up a notch, or if you’re not sure how to identify different tracks these helpful tools are fun to include:
- Smart phone to document the tracks and/or to search for information online
- Field guide (in case you don’t have a smart phone or just prefer to look things up in a book)
- A nature journal, in which your child can take notes and make drawings of the tracks. (Works better when it’s not too cold outside.)
- Magnifying glass
- A check list for the animals whose tracks you may encounter. Make sure to include some that you’re likely to see, as well as some more unusual ones, for example, dog, cat, deer, bird, squirrel, raccoon or whatever animals live in your area.
- Flashlight for after-dark explorations
If you’re new to animal tracking, there are plenty of resources online and even smart phone apps that can help with identifying tracks, skulls and bones. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
BioKIDS has excellent guides broken down in five categories: Animal Tracks, Bite or Chew Marks, Things Animals Build, Things that Look Like Eggs and Things Animals Leave Behind. The site is geared toward children and covers animals that are commonly found in the eastern US.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers a chart of 10 common North American mammals in this animal tracking activity guide for kids.
If you want to make a plaster cast of an animal track, check out this guide, which also includes some of the most common animals in North America.
At The Smithsonian’s page North American Mammals. you can search for mammals by region to see which ones live in your area or by species, if there’s an animal that you would like to learn more about. There’s also a special skulls and bones collection.
There are several smartphone apps for animal tracking. Some come with free versions that list just a few animals if you want to try it out before you buy. These are the ones I have found so far: Scats & Tracks of North America, Critter Trax, iTrack Wildlife and MyNature: Animal Tracks.