Learning about animal tracks with children — what worked and what didn’t

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

At the end of February after 2 months of learning about African Wild Dogs it felt like the kiddos were ready for a new topic to learn about. They still very much loved playing with our African Wild Dog stuffies and vet and ranger supplies, but yet it felt like their minds were ready for something new to learn about and absorb. So at the end of African Wild Dog learning block we had a little graduation and our aspiring rangers “flew” on our make-believe airplane-log back to their home base in United States. And so I thought learning about animal tracks would be a logical new topic to learn about, as what rangers don’t need that particular skill, right?

Learning about animal tracks however didn’t click with the kids from the first go. But I was determined to find a way to interest them in it. And so I kept trying few different approaches to find the one that would click. Eventually I got there!

Even though, there are a lot of beautiful supplies and curriculums out there, but they are of no use if we as parents or teachers do not find a way to interest our children in them. And getting there often takes more than one attempt before one succeeds. 🙂

And so I thought in this post to share with you the process of fine-tuning and tweaking of our learning projects that we go through in order to establish the connection that will engage the children, make it fun and enjoyable learning adventures.

Bringing in stuffed animals

Inspired by the great success we had from bringing the African Wild Dog stuffy into our previous learning block, I got us a whole lot of different stuffies representing local animals to spark that connection with the new topic. My original idea was to make a trail of animal paw prints on the ground for each of the stuffed animals. Then have children follow the trail to discover who left the prints! It seemed like it’d be a successful introduction — it has an element of scavenger hunt and some exciting discovery at the end. But it failed.

In the search of activity that would click with the children

Attempt #1 — failed implementation

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

To do the above I created on my computer true-to-size paw print cut-outs (stencils) for each of the animals we had as stuffies. The idea was to use these stencils and cocoa powder (as a natural and compostable colorant) to make a trail of colored prints on the snow, see the photos. I did a similar activity with wolf paw prints when we learned about wolves in 2019.

Unfortunately after lot of hard work of making long trails of paw prints on the snow (chipmunk tracks were especially tedious and time consuming) by the time the kiddos arrived and got to my game the powdery tracks I spent an hour making melted and resembled just a lump of dirt.

And while the kiddos were excited to find new stuffies, when I attempted to chat about different animal tracks and show them the pictures — they could care less. So clearly, establishing the connection has failed at this time.

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

Attempt #2 — not much interest

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

Over the next few times at the forest school I brought some coloring sheets with animal tracks, we also traced our hands and feet against bear and wolf paw prints to compare the size and shape. But I could tell the kids were just not into it. So after a couple variations of this type of activities we didn’t press on with them, as I was back to figuring out my next move. 🙂

Attempt #3 — some interest

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

But as mentioned above, I was quite determined to find a way into their hearts with this learning theme. 🙂

I decided to go back to the idea of animal paw print tracks leading to a stuffed animal. This time I printed the animal tracks on paper, and made a trail of animal tracks on the snow using these paper print outs. Each track of paw prints lead to the correlating stuffed animal hiding in the bushes along with a couple of little chocolate eggs as a treat.

That day was pretty cold and windy, and the wind kept blowing away the paper cutouts with animals tracks, so instead of staying on the ground as a trail of paw prints the little papers were getting all over the place. This was making it somewhat confusing for the kiddos following the tracks. But they were all fairly excited to find a stuffed animal who left the prints at the end of each track. I’d say the overall attempt was semi-successful and I could probably try it again though, and now that the concept is more familiar the kids will be into it.

Keeping it light and staying flexible

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

By the way, I wanted to mention here that all our activities are very brief — 5-10 minutes, unless the kiddos get into it and wish to keep on working at it on their own afterwards. Our approach is always about finding the activity that will spark their interest. And if the idea we bring to them is a no-go we don’t push it on them, but take it back home to reconsider our approach.

Success at last!

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

My next attempt to get the kiddos into the animal tracks topic was a board game! Our Gila Monster board game was a huge success with the kids. I really wanted to do a board game while we were learning about African Wild Dogs as a way to learn more of geography, similarly to how we did it during our Gila Monster learning block. But I never got time to figure the new game out. This time, I felt I got an idea that should work.

Chippy the Chipmunk” board game

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

To keep things simple, I decided to center the story for the board game around most coveted of the recently acquired stuffed animals — the chipmunk. Unlike our Gila Monster board game, this time I used a different principle, more like that of the Ogar board game. The premise of our game was that Chippy the Chipmunk comes out of his burrow as it is Spring now, and is hungry. He needs to find food! But there are predators out in the forest as well — a fox, a hawk and a Garter snake.

At the start of the game we place food cards and predator cards randomly on our board. Then in the course of the game the players need to place the cards with chipmunk paw prints on the board laying out a trail to one of the food cards. From time to time, however, we pull out a predator card from the stack of cards — a fox paw print for a fox, a hawk talon print and a snake track. And once the predator card gets pulled the predator makes a move towards the chipmunk.

The first go with the board game

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

The first time I brought out the board game it didn’t go as well as I anticipated. The feedback from the children was that we had to do too much spinning of the dial and rolling of the dice to determine the placement of the predator cards. I originally thought it would a great idea, as (a) usually kids like to do both and (b) it was my secret way of practicing letters, counting and doing addition. But the children found it a bit tedious.

We also developed a bit of a conflict during the game among the players. Some of the boys decided to be Team Predator and instead of leading the chipmunk to the food they would try to lead him to a predator card instead. This was upsetting to the other kiddos who really were trying to get Chippy the Chipmunk safely to his burrow after collecting his food.

Getting it revised to take kids feedback into account

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

To address both of these issues I modified the rules — we now had Team Chipmunk and Team Predator. And I gave the Team Predator a bit more control of where the predator card could be moved. This markedly cheered up all the boys who wanted the predators to succeed. And still left an element of chance for the chipmunk to remain uneaten. And it reduced times we needed to spin the dial.

I also realized that I left out a big part of what made Gila Monster game such success — an active physical activity, such as chase, into the game. This helped the kids from feeling restless and also allowed for a lot of silliness, roughousing and an opportunity for them to act out being a fearsome predator. 🙂

So whenever we pulled a predator card we’d take a pause from the board game, determine which ones of us are predators and which ones are chipmunks and then have a good chase. Sometimes I would be assigned to be the predator, and other times I was the lonely chipmunk chased by a whole gang of predators. And even though these breaks were only 3-4 minutes long they made a huge difference in overall energy. After a good chase we all would happily get back to the board to figure out where the predator card should go and see if the chipmunk was lucky or not.

We played for probably an entire hour, the chipmunk barely made it to the burrow safely, which really bummed out Team Predator. But everyone was very happy and energized. The children wanted to start over, but that day our time in the forest was up.

The things children learned so far

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

I wanted to make a brief summary of the things children learned so far through the game.

  • They all got pretty good at distinguishing between the paw prints of a chipmunk, a fox, a snake and a bird.
  • We learned some zoology of chipmunks — where they live, how they spend their winter, what they eat and who their predators are.
  • While many kids right away identified fox paw print as canine (turned out my previous attempts of teaching about paw prints weren’t totally in vain 🙂 ) they at first thought it was a print of the wolf. So we had another opportunity to compare the size of the paw print to their own hand — the wolf’s print would be as big or bigger as a 5 year old hand, while the fox is significantly smaller.
  • Some kids kept referring to the hawk as eagle, so we had many opportunities to practice differentiating between the two and discussing the difference between those two types of birds. 🙂
  • Each time we spin our little dial and place cards on the board we repeatedly practice letter recognition.
  • Because our board is very large we actually use 2 dices, and so each time a child rolls a dice he/she gets to count the dots and them practice (or get familiar with) addition.

We all had a blast playing the game. And we did all the learning while the kiddos were completely unsuspecting of it — there was no formal lesson, nobody was compelled to participate and they were all really into the process. Exactly the learning process we go for!

Keeping the child at the center of education

It seems too often in our society the education becomes a rigid process that doesn’t take into account children’s personalities, their own interests and their ever-changing, ever-moving nature. 🙂 But in reality, they are all individuals and are simply not meant to be sitting down for longer than few minutes at a time, or they may simply explode. All children are quick thinkers and astonishing learners. And so our most important role as adults in their lives (teachers or parents) should be to help them discover themselves, to allow their imagination flourish, their minds wonder and their bodies exercise. And whenever we wish to teach them something we ought to find a way into their world, instead of barging in there to force-feed them with data they have no use for.

I hope you found this post helpful, please leave us any feedback or share other successful ideas in the comments.

learning animal tracks with children outdoor learning activities at the forest school

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