Animal tracks: Preschool and kindergarten science activities

© 2009-10 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

I like these preschool and kindergarten science activities because they build on what most kids are already interested in--animals.

I also suspect these activities offer opportunities to practice analytical, spatial, and symbolic reasoning skills. (To see why, see this article on the lost art of tracking.)

Below I outline a series of activities that involve making and interpreting tracks, prints, and other signs.

Where to begin: Free exploration with print-making

Experiments suggest that young children turn off their critical thinking skills when adults tell them what to do.

So I think it's best to avoid presenting young children with principles and procedures to learn.

Instead, start by giving kids the opportunity to discover for themselves how tracks are made.

These freewheeling activities can be conducted with paint and paper, salt dough, or on outdoor surfaces (like damp sand or dirt).

Encourage kids to make prints with their hands and feet. Give them plastic animal toys, too, and show them how to make impressions with their feet.

Some advice on supplies

If you want to use paint and paper, be sure to sample the paint first. Some finger paints are too thick to leave behind clean impressions. On the other hand, poster paints may be too runny for younger kids to control. One solution is to make a stamp pad by soaking a sponge in nontoxic poster paint.

Salt dough or play dough is a good medium for making toy footprints. Ideally, you want a modeling compound that is soft enough that kids can roll it out themselves with a rolling pin. Note the some clays and commercial play doughs are too stiff for young children to do this easily.

Wet sand is fun, too. But it can be hard to see prints if the sun is directly overhead, so if you want to work outdoors you might try timing your activities for the morning or late afternoon.

If you plan to work with dirt, bring a little water and a spatula to prepare the surface, making it damp and smooth.

Questions to ask

As kids make tracks with animal toys, have them look at the toy feet and consider these questions. What do the feet look like? What shape are they? Do some creatures (like elephants and sauropod dinosaurs) have similar looking feet? Are their tracks similar, too?

The next step: Preschool and kindergarten science activities that teach kids about animal tracks

After kids have had time to investigate on their own, you can try these activities:

Investigate different kinds of feet

Have kids look at real feet, including non-human feet. (You can try visiting a pet store or zoo, or your pet). Look at pictures of feet, too, and ask kids to consider these questions.

How many toes are there?

What does the bottom surface of the foot look like? Is it bumpy? Scaly? Smooth? Flat? Arched? What shapes do you see?

When the creature walks, what parts of its feet touch the ground?

Does the foot have nails? Hooves? Claws?

If there are claws, do they touch the ground when the animal walks (as they do with dogs)? Or are the claws retracted (as they are in cats)?

You can reinforce these preschool and kindergarten science activities with some books about tracking. I like Big Tracks, Little Tracks: Following Animal Prints (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science, Stage 1) by Millicent Selsam and Marlene Hill Donnelly.

This inexpensive book offers clear pictures of various kinds of animal tracks (like those left behind by dogs, cats, raccoons, frogs, rabbits, and other animals). It also presents the reader with several puzzles, asking kids to analyze pictures of tracks. Which animals made them? What story do the tracks tell? The text is aimed at 3- to 6-year olds, but the book is interesting to adults, too.

For more suggestions, see the Resources section below.

Show kids animal tracks, and have kids guess what creature(s) made them

Making and testing predictions

Using plastic animal toys, make a series of tracks and then present these to your child. In addition, provide him with a collection of plastic toys—including the toys you used to make the tracks. Let him examine the toys and tracks and ask him to make some predictions. Which animal(s) are responsible for the tracks? Let him check his predictions by making his own set of tracks.

Matching pictures

You can also present kids with pictures of different kinds of feet and ask kids to match the pictures with the right tracks.

To do this, make your own footprint cards. On each card, attach a picture of different type of animal footprint (e.g., a horse’s, a goose’s, an elephant’s, a dog’s). Then, on the back, attach pictures of the animal and animal foot associated with that footprint. Make a second set of cards identical with the first except that they are one-sided, showing the footprints only.

To play, arrange the double-sided cards on the table with the foot pictures face up. Then try to match with the single-sided footprint cards. Kids can check to see if their answers are correct by turning over the double-sided cards.

For free, printable pictures of North American animal tracks, check out Author Kim Cabrera offers a free PDF guide to over 50 different kinds of tracks common in North America.

Alternatively, you can buy this kit: Young Scientist Club The Magic School Bus Explore The Wonders of Nature. It includes a set of illustrated cards, as well as supplies for other wildlife activities. (Note: This website will receive a small commission for purchases made through these links.)

Look for real tracks and other signs of animal life

Live in a city? You may still find many opportunities to track real animals:

  • Cat foot prints on automobiles
  • Scratch marks left on trees by cats and squirrels
  • Prints left in the snow
  • Snail and slug tracks
  • Prints left in sand (e.g., at the playground)
  • Droppings or scat left by birds, rodents, pets, etc.
  • Spider webs
  • Nut shells discarded by squirrels
  • Evidence that leaves have been eaten by insects, snails, slugs, or other animals

In addition to looking for such signs, you can also measure and record them. Bring along a ruler and a notebook. You might also keep a photo journal of your discoveries. Before taking a picture, put a coin alongside the feature of interest in order to give the viewer a sense of scale.

And take a flashlight, too. Tracks can be hard to see in the direct sunlight. If you shine a flashlight on them, tilted at an angle, you can create shadows inside a track and better see it’s contours.

Preschool and kindergarten science activities: Experiments with human footprints

For older kids, try this on the beach: Have barefoot kids experiment moving at different speeds across the sand.

What tracks are left behind when they walk? Or run?

Check out the shapes of the footprints (e.g., if kids run, is the heel strike more or less prominent? What about the ball of the foot?)

Also, measure the distances between footprints. Is it possible to tell if someone was walking or running by looking at their tracks?

You can do this on the playground, too. Roll out a long sheet of paper (over 2 meters) and have kids dip their bare feet in poster paint. Use a different color for each speed.

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Resources: More information about tracking

As noted above, offers free guides to animal tracks. There are also many helpful articles about tracking. This isn’t a website for young children. But it’s a great resource for you.

You might also be interested in my article about the anthropology of tracking.

Then there are these books for the kids:

Selsam, Millicent E. 1995. Big tracks, little tracks: Following animal prints. New York: Harper Collins. This is the book I recommend most highly. Great value for the money. But keep in mind, the book focuses on the sorts of animals kids find in North America, including cats and dogs, foxes, rabbits, deer, frogs, snakes, racoons, and sea gulls.

George, Lindsay Barrett. 1999. In the snow: Who’s been here? New York: Harper Collins.

George, Lindsay Barrett. 1998. Into the woods: Who’s been here? New York: Harper Collins.

In addition, try the National Geographic guide, Animal Tracks and Signs: Track Over 400 Animals From Big Cats to Backyard Birds. It's not aimed at young children. But the pictures make it a good reference for people of all ages. And, unlike the other books mentioned here, it features animals from all over the world, including the tropics and the arctic.

Content of "Animal tracks: Preschool and kindergarten science actitivities" last modified 12/10