people standing in the snow examining animal tracks

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.

It is easy to walk away from this article and not consider incorporating tracking into your practice because you lack the beauty of an outdoor centre for your schoolyard. I challenge you to look at your schoolyard with new eyes this week when you go out for recess duty. Ball diamonds, long jump pits, sand boxes, puddles, dirt paths, gardens, each of these small eco-habitats likely holds some kind of track. Even human tracks – why not examine them? It is the process of seeing the little things and asking questions about the observations our students make that inspire them to go deeper. Nature is always teaching us and we can use our awareness to look for the moments and patterns that inspire curiosity in ourselves and our students. In doing this we use nature’s classroom to help our students understand humans’ place in the ecosystem.

Tracks allow us to be aware of our surroundings and know what animals are in our backyards, neighborhoods and local forests. They connect us to the natural world in a way that demonstrates our interdependence. When we are deeply connected to the land and our bio-region, it is not only beneficial to our personal, emotional and spiritual wellbeing, but we also notice the subtle and not so subtle changes that happen. When species' numbers start to decline, we can make changes to how we use the land before they disappear. It is not only about the animals, but also the wildflowers, trees, reptiles, amphibians and all the living things that make up the eco-system. And all these things matter and are connected to one another.

Tracking in Your Classroom and Schoolyard

  1. Use the long jump pit or any other dirt surface. Have students close their eyes and select one student to walk through the space. Classmates then examine the track and each other’s shoes to determine who walked there.
  2. Using the same space, have a student run, jump or walk differently through the space. Have other students try to figure out what the student was doing.
  3. Using plaster of Paris, make molds of tracks found in your local outdoor space, school yard or park.
  4. Create a sightings board in a central location at your school where anyone can record a species that they observed in the vicinity.
  5. For a nominal amount, tracking plates and stamps can be purchased from some educational supply stores. Create tracking activities inside the classroom.
  6. Using observations from tracks discovered outside, have students build field guide pages that can be put together into a local field guide. This can be developed after students have had time to explore field guides as a text.
  7. Through research, have students observe movements of different animals, then try to move like them. The YouTube video by Steve Leckman is fantastic for this – search Animal Gaits on YouTube. Another great link is the tracking video produced by Gilmour and Burnett that explores questioning and tracking ( watch?v=jU_-nizPl34).
  8. Using either found or created tracks, measure the length, width and distance between steps.
  9. Develop stories that explain found tracks. What was the animal doing? Where does it live?
  10. Design your own track for a make-believe species and explain the design of the foot and how it helps the animal.
  11. Research the cultural and natural history of the school neighbourhood. Which First Nation’s land is your school built on? What treaty are you part of? What animals have become extinct in your area? Are you located on a moraine?

We are grateful to the York Region District School Board’s Outdoor Education Advisory Committee for funding both tracking workshops. Many thanks to the First Nations, Métis and Inuit team at YRDSB and to the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation who support our learning journey. Finally, thanks to colleagues and friends for your comments and edits on this article.

Gina Marucci is a member of the York Region Teacher Local.