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people standing in the snow examining animal tracks
Photo by Christine Cousins
Feature

Animal Tracks: Building Inquiry, Questioning and a Connection to Nature

Gina Marucci with Alexis Burnett and Chris Gilmour

In February of 2016, the Vivian Outdoor Resource Centre hosted two separate, one-day workshops titled Wildlife Tracking and Naturalist Skills for Educators. I, a very novice tracker, along with two master trackers supported teachers in broadening their understanding of tracking and, more importantly, in teaching this ancient skill as a way to get students excited and connected to their local habitats while linking to core curriculum.

Tracking, in its simplest form, refers to examining tracks and other signs left by animals. It is looking with new eyes to observe the stories left on the land. Sometimes we see obvious tracks left in freshly fallen snow and, other times, very subtle claw marks poking into wet sand. Sign tracking refers to finding evidence left by animals in nature. It can be branches they have nibbled, a dug-out burrow or a gnawed pinecone. Tracking can take place anywhere. I’ve even caught myself in downtown Toronto – stopped, observing tracks in a parkette.

The art and science of tracking open up new ways of looking at the natural world. Skilled trackers can gain an astounding amount of information from the clues left behind by a person, animal or event. The thinking and inquiry process that ensues from the examination of a track is explosive and addictive. The thought processes and observation skills developed can be applied to almost every aspect of our lives. Many students want to follow the tracks we find at the centre to find the animal at the end of the trail and confirm their predictions. Who made the tracks? What was it doing? When did they come past? Where does it sleep? Why did it come here? How does it move?

An integral shift in my teaching practice came when I was introduced to The Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature . I have been fortunate to work with several Deep Nature Connection practitioners, such as my co-writers Chris Gilmour and Alexis Burnett, both trained practitioners of the “Eight Shields” model created by Jon Young. Young developed a philosophy of reconnecting people to the natural world that provides 12 core routines and activities to help people of all ages connect to the seasons, recognize changes in nature, cultivate awareness in others and develop a universal connection to the land that fosters a sense of gratitude for the nature that is around us regardless of where we live, our cultures or traditions.

Many of the activities and routines outlined in the The Coyote’s Guide connect to important shifts in education that focus on mental health and personal well-being, as well as themes that are woven though provincial programs such as the EcoSchools program that work to build a sense of stewardship in our students.

Another text that supports building nature connection is Natural Curiosity. Here, a four-pillar approach of inquiry based learning, integrated learning, experiential learning and stewardship is used to develop environmental inquiry. As educators, we need to use learning strategies that help students become informed, engaged citizens who use modern “learning skills that include collaboration, creativity, communication and critical thinking.” (Connecting the Dots)

Teaching with these philosophies provides natural openings for educators to make thoughtful, meaningful connections to our local First Nations communities. “Indigenous philosophies of education are the oldest continuing expressions of Environmental Education.” (Natural Curiosity) Many Indigenous cultures have a holistic approach to learning that encompasses the body, mind and spirit and includes a foundational belief that all things are connected. When we begin to honour this in our teachings and integrate hands-on experiential learning throughout the curriculum, we work as mentors to support our students’ unique gifts and carve out paths for our students to explore their own individual curiosities.

All Species That Live on the Land

One of the opening exercises during the workshop had us consider all the species that live on the land in the general proximity of the centre. This master species list challenged many of us as we considered both big and small animals that we could find evidence for later in the day. Gilmour and Burnett quickly populated a table that grouped all our local mammals into family groups, such as lagomorphs (snowshoe hares, jack rabbits, and cottontails) and mustelids (the weasel family including minks, fishers, martens, ermines and badgers). Other columns in our chart included number of toes on front foot, rear foot, shape of the print and patterns to demonstrate typical track patterns of these family groups.

We gain a sense of place when we acknowledge and pay attention to the species that we share space with. Imagine students observing tracks in their schoolyard to eventually have them come to discover that those are fox tracks. This discovery plants seeds for so many questions. As Burnett has said, “We lack an in-depth understanding of how things happen in the natural world. Tracking gives us a toolset that helps us take better care of the earth.” Once students begin to feel connected to their local space, they can’t help but want to look after it and care for it. As students begin to understand their local forests and habitats, they will be the ones to notice changes, advocate to protect them and become stewards of the land in a way that is far more connected than the connections we make in the classroom alone.

“Tracking animals is fascinating. It’s a window into wildlife. It captures imagination, empathy, and demands whole-brain intelligence and concentration” ( Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature ). I am fortunate to witness students doing this every day at Vivian. To see grade 2 students get down on their hands and knees to inspect an unknown set of tracks is phenomenal. I encourage students to place their fingers inside those tracks to literally make a connection with nature. While impossible to build their ‘tracking toolset’ in a day, opening students’ eyes to their surroundings and encouraging them to pay attention to the signs animals have left behind lead them on a path of inquiry that could never have been reached indoors. Nature provides ample situations for children to become inspired and passionate about a certain event or species. From this passion and natural curiosity we, as mentors, can ask questions that guide them even deeper on their learning journey.

Connecting to the Land

Students need to be connected to the land. When we take our students outside on a regular basis profound things begin to happen. Improved academic outcomes, increased physical activity, mental health benefits and beneficial play are some of the areas where recent research has shown positive results ( Green Schoolyards ). As educators, we need to ensure that our students see nature everywhere around them. It is not hours away; it is just outside the door. We need to cultivate their passion for nature so they will continue to grow, see the birds and bugs, notice the subtle changes in the trees and feel the interconnectedness of living and non-living things. If one of the thousands of pieces in the chain disappears, they are all affected. This generation of children will be the caretakers of the land in the future.

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