In our last several After School trips into the forest, I have been struck by students’ reaction when animal tracks are found. Conversations between students often go something like this: What walked here? I think it was a coyote because it looks like a dog but there are no people tracks. Was it running? Which way did it go? It was going this way because I can see the claws here in the front of each track. Let’s follow it to see where it went! Oh, here’s people tracks…the tracks must be from their dog going off on an adventure! I guess the tracks were too big to be a coyote.
I rarely see this sort of spontaneous back and forth questioning, hypothesizing, and problem solving between students on the playground, in the gym, or doing an art project. Often during a more structured activity, such reactions can be prompted by an adult’s questioning. There, in the forest, it was inspired by the students’ curiosity and desire to solve a puzzle.
Luckily, you don’t need a forest to investigate animal tracks. Even in the most urban school yards, I’ve always been able to find at least two different kinds of animal tracks (often pigeon, squirrel, dog, or cat) and numerous human tracks from different kinds of boots and shoes. No snow? Look for muddy areas!
To help students practice noticing the details of and differences between tracks, I love using “Sole Search” from Project Seasons. In this activity, each student does a rubbing of the bottom of their shoe using a crayon and blank piece of paper. The teacher then mixes up the papers, passes them out to students sitting in a circle, and everyone puts one of their shoes in the middle of the circle. Students then have to try to find the shoe that matches the rubbing. After, if you still have the group’s attention, you can ask students to share an observation that helped them make their match.
If working with a group of students who don’t know basic animal tracks, I always start with the difference between cats and dogs. You can draw an X in the middle of a dog track. Additionally, you can almost always see claws above each toe of a dog track. Cats have more of an M shaped pad, retract claws when they walk, and have toes lined up more horizontally.
Once you’re primed to make detailed observations and know a few key differences between common tracks, get outside! Investigate human tracks. Look for animal tracks. Ask questions like: Which was was this animal walking? Do you think it was running? Hopping? What animal or person do you think this track belongs to? What details can you see? Where did it go? What was it doing?