Check out Engineering Explorers, our newest online resource!

Investigating Snow Tracks

by Diann Gano, M.Ed

“Hey, Hudson, look!  Animal tracks! Let’s be detectives and see where they go!”

Hudson and James are on the hunt. It’s one of those peaceful, quiet winter mornings when freshly fallen snow blankets our outdoor area and muffles the sounds of the morning rush hour.

The sun is shining and the scene is so sparkly and magical that we can’t resist heading outside despite the freezing temperatures.

Morning is the best time of day to spot fresh tracks. The rising sun casts shadows that make the tracks easier to spot in the glistening snow—and you’re more likely to see the tracks of nocturnal animals such as raccoons and opossums, as well as the tracks of early risers such as squirrels, birds and rabbits.

We occasionally find paw prints from a raccoon or hoof prints from a deer, but most of the tracks that we find are made by neighborhood cats and dogs, as well as squirrels and birds.

“What kind of animal left these, do you think?” Hudson asks as he leans over to examine some mystery tracks in the snow. “I think it’s a cat, but maybe it’s a raccoon,” he muses out loud. “It’s not an opossum, right? I don’t see any tracks from a tail dragging in the snow.”

“I see a cat on Miss Mary’s porch step!” Jonah points out as he joins the STEM investigation. “I bet the tracks belong to that cat!”

“This track over here has four toes on the front feet and the back feet—and I think the cat steps his back feet on top of his front paws,” adds James. He examines the tracks more closely and confirms his hypothesis. “Yep! It’s the cat! Look at the toes: they are pointing that way. Let’s follow them!”

Soon our entire team of STEM investigators is clomping through the snow after James as he follows the paw prints.

We have plenty of wandering cats in our neighborhood. For years, we have engaged in follow-the-cat-print expeditions on snowy days, trying to figure out the exact route that the cat took and why. Today has ushered in a new season of snow—and a new season of animal tracking expeditions!

Young children instinctively seem to notice attributes such as the shapesizelength, or other characteristics of any object, including today’s paw prints. We follow the track routes while making observations and forming theories

Curiosity, persistence, questioning, and problem-solving are the traits of a true scientist. These real-life adventures naturally add science to our play!

By following a few track patterns, we piece together the mystery of what these critters have been up to in our outdoor classroom.

Our focus is now very intentional and the mood has shifted from playful curiosity to deep observation and concentration. This is what child-led learning looks like. 

Children develop their understanding of matching and patterns through experience. Because it’s difficult to consider a lot of attributes at once, children often begin to create sets by finding exact matches.

This helps build the foundation for basic math, science and engineering skills as the children observe and ask questions—all while solving the paw print mystery!  

As we follow the tracks, the children find clues such as changes in direction and differences in the appearance of the prints. Why do the tracks look a little different now? The gait pattern offers clues about how the animal was moving. Was it running or walking?

These small details can convey a lot about the animal that left the tracks and what it was doing at the time. We don’t have paper and pencils to collect data outside today, but our friends are still forming hypotheses and making deductions as they piece the clues together.

We will pull out our tracking books when we return to the warmth of the classroom. But, for now, the species doesn’t matter as much as the experience of following the path and collecting clues. Our focus is not on what is being learned, but on the knowledge and insights that the children gain through investigative play.

If your STEM investigators begin to follow the tracks in your outdoor classroom, check to see If the tracks lead to a tree or another animal habitat. See if you can find a bird or squirrel nest. Look for rabbit tracks leading to spruce trees.

If you are walking around the neighborhood, you’re likely to see dog tracks on the sidewalks or the parkways. And if you find prints that look like the ones pictured below, you’ve just found evidence of some young children leaving their own “paw” prints in the snow!

11 Replies to “Investigating Snow Tracks”

  1. We could do so much snow prints using different items and inside we could use flour to make tracks with

  2. we have done this in my classroom during winter. the kids really enjoy trying to figure out what animal left the prints

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *