Track Detectives – Activities

FOCUS: Tracks in the snow give us hints about the lives of animals that live nearby. Learning to recognize tracks and sign helps us identify animals and their activities from the clues they leave behind.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about tracks by observing photos depicting interesting track scenarios.

Divide the children into small groups and share a photo from Mystery Track and Sign Photos with each group. Ask children to share their observations about the photo.  Encourage observation first without interpretation (for example “I see tracks that end at the tree” instead of  “A squirrel was climbing the tree”). Based on their observations, who are the possible animals who could have made the tracks? What do they wonder? Pass the photos between the small groups. Afterwards, everyone can share their observations and wonderings together, piece together the story, and reveal the mystery animal.

Materials: Mystery Track and Sign Photos.

PUPPET SHOW “Tracking the Tracker”
Objective: To learn the four basic patterns of animal tracks and other important sign or clues used to identify animals and their activities.

Perform or have a group of children perform the puppet show for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. Use the puppets and track pattern props to review the four basic track patterns. Which animal left a single line of tracks (deer), paired tracks of different sizes (porcupine), group of four tracks (hare and squirrel), paired tracks of the same size (otter)? What other signs besides tracks do animals leave behind that give us clues to their behavior and can help us identify them?

Materials: puppets, script, track pattern props.

Objective: To model the four basic animal track patterns and learn the connection between body shape and size to these track pattern variations.

Start by dividing the children into small groups, and have them crawl on their hands and knees over to adult group leaders. When they settle in their small group circles, ask which of their limbs moved at the same time while crawling? (Right hand, left knee; left hand, right knee.) Hold up the Single Line of Tracks Movement Pattern fold-out poster showing how this represents a bobcat’s walking pattern. It also illustrates the crawl. Using the Movement Pattern Notes, describe the bobcat’s body and movement features. Lay out the single line of tracks pattern on the floor using the footprint ovals, introducing the terms stride and straddle as you do so. What is happening with their front and back feet to create just a single line of tracks? (Back feet are landing on the ground exactly where the front feet had been.) Can they think of other animals, similar to the deer and bobcat, that might walk this way? (All hoofed animals, cats and also dogs.)  Then hold up puppets, stuffed animals or photos to confirm their correct guesses. Have the children pretend to be one of these animals and imitate their single line of tracks movement patterns. Hold up another Movement Pattern fold-out poster and repeat the process for the other movements. Afterward, you may wish to review the four patterns using the Four Basic Track Pattern diagram.

Materials: Footprint ovals (two sizes), cut from non-slip rug padding, four Movement Pattern fold-out posters, Movement Pattern Notes handouts, Four Winds puppets, stuffed animals or photos of representative animals; optional: Four Basic Track Pattern diagram.

Objective: To compare similarities and differences in size, shape, and number of toes in different animal footprints.

Ahead of time, create a few sets of the Print Match Puzzles, enough so that each small group of children can have one. First lay out only the puzzle pieces that show the animals’ footprints. Have the children look for similarities and differences in size, shape, and number of toes among the prints. Then ask them to sort these based on the number of toes. Now have them line up the prints from biggest to smallest, and try to predict which animal belongs to each print. Hand out the animal puzzle pieces and have them match them up with the foot prints. Did they guess the right animals from the prints?

Materials: Print Match Puzzles, one set per small group, each set copied onto a different color of cardstock.

Objective: To identify winter animal activity based on visual evidence in snow, including track patterns, prints and common signs.

Show the interactive Track Detective slide show or photos, asking the children to guess each track maker’s identity based on clues provided in the slides.

Materials: Track Detective slide show or photos, Tracks Slide Show script, projector, screen.

Objective: To use observations of animal tracks and signs to construct an evidence-based account of animal activity.

Ahead of time, scout around the school grounds for signs of animal activity. In small groups with an adult leader, visit different areas to look for tracks and signs of animals. Using the Animal Track Pattern and Print Identification cards, identify animals from their prints, track patterns, and other clues. Take turns making up stories about what the animals might have been doing in their schoolyard.

Materials: Animal Track Pattern and Print Identification cards, one per child; other tracking reference field guides.

Objective: To construct an explanation of how track patterns were created in the snow.

If you have limited animal activity in the schoolyard, have each small group make their own tracks for the other small groups to observe and interpret. Give each small group a few cards from the Tricky Tracks handout, so that each has a different set of suggestions for creating track patterns. Groups may use these or come up with their own creative ideas. Go to separate areas of the schoolyard and create a set of tracks in untouched snow. If necessary, use brooms to clear away old footprints. Then, together, view each group’s tracks, and from observations make a guess as to how they were created. Each group can confirm, then demonstrate how their track patterns were made.

Materials:  Tricky Track cards, copied onto cardstock, cut into cards, and divided between small groups; optional: brooms.

Objective: To interpret track stories using pattern, place, prints, and other sign as clues to determine an animal’s identity and activity.

Ahead of time, create poster-sized versions of the Once Upon a Time Track Tales drawing, using different colored markers for each animal’s tracks. Unroll the Track Tale scroll slowly, revealing one animal track at a time. Ask: Where does the story takes place? What is the animal’s track or movement pattern? Can they identify the print? What do they think each of the animals was doing? If time is limited, use the Once Upon a Time Track Tales as a closing activity, in place of Animal Track Booklets.

Materials: Enlarged version of Once Upon A Time Track Tales drawing, copied onto a large sheet of paper, then rolled up like a scroll.

TRACK TALES (Grades 3-6)
Objective: To interpret track stories using pattern, place, prints and other sign as evidence to determine an animal’s identity and activity.

Ahead of time make copies of the Track Tales and Track Tale Characters handouts, one for every pair of children. Pairs should use the questions on the Track Tales Characters sheet to locate each animal on the Track Tales handout and determine from the evidence what it was doing. Remind them to consider where the story takes place, what track or movement pattern is depicted, and foot print size and shape. If time is limited, use the Track Tales in place of Track Stamp Stories as a closing activity.

Materials: Track Tales illustration and Track Tale Characters handout, one set per pair of children.

Objective: To review and record some familiar animal tracks.

Ahead of time, create a set of animal track stamps using the Track Stamp templates. Prompt: Use stamps to print one or more different kinds of animal tracks in your journal and label them with the name of the animal and/or draw a picture. Older children can include information, such as measurements about track patterns.

Materials: science journals or clipboards and paper, pencils, crayons, track stamps (created using Track Stamp template and wood blocks); ink pads.

Objective: To work collaboratively to create a picture story about winter animal activity using track stamps.

Ahead of time, create a set of animal track stamps using the Track Stamp templates. Have the children work in pairs or small groups. Give each group one or two animal stamps. If using two, have one animal be a predator and the other its prey. Each group should collaborate on a story plot, then draw the setting. Once they have confirmed their characters’ track patterns, distribute inkpads to use with the stamps to print sets of tracks. When finished, have the children take turns sharing drawings, while the others use the evidence depicted to guess their stories.

Materials: Track stamps (created using Track Stamp templates and wood blocks); large sheets of paper or newsprint; crayons, ink pads.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Sizing up Tracks (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use mathematical data to distinguish between tracks of similar patterns.

Have the students work in small groups. Give each team a Sizing Up Tracks sheet that shows the life-sized prints of an animal with tracks in groups of four – two front and two hind prints – as they would appear in the snow. Ask students to measure and record the trail width for each set of prints. All measurements should be taken in centimeters. After measuring ten sets of prints, calculate the average and compare it to averages given in the Average Trail Width table (shown below) to determine which animal made these tracks.

Average Trail Width*

White-footed Mouse               3.5-4.5cm

Chipmunk                               5-8cm

Red Squirrel                            7.5-11cm

Gray Squirrel                           8.25-14cm

Answer: chipmunk when printed on 11 x 17” paper; white-footed mouse on 8 ½ x 11” paper.

*Adapted from Rezendes, Paul. Tracking and the Art of Seeing. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1999

Materials: for each small group: Sizing Up Tracks sheet, metric ruler, pencil; optional: calculator.


Sole Search: If snow conditions aren’t cooperating, use the Sole Search activity adapted from Project Seasons where children make a rubbing of their right shoe with paper and crayon. They then trace the outline of their left shoe around their rubbing. Divide into small groups, collect rubbings and have children place their left shoes in a central spot. Hand out the shoe rubbings (don’t take your own!) and ask children to study the print for important clues. Then have them inspect the soles of the shoes in the center to find one that matches their print. Take turns, having children explain what clue helped them select a shoe, and have the shoe’s owner confirm the match and receive their shoe and rubbing back.

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