Animal Tracking as Literacy!

Observation skills are at the core of problem solving, in that one must first identify the problem and all its components before finding solutions that make the most sense. This skill transfers over to a student’s ability to read a situation, notice both the obvious and the more subtle signs, and then develop conclusions based on those observations.

Critical thinking begins with focused attention. Social skills require the ability to read the cues in people’s faces and behaviors. Problem solving begins with the ability to observe a situation and possible solutions. All these skills are inherent in animal tracking and wilderness outings.

Every parent wants their child to be able to walk into a situation, assess what is happening, and then be able to act accordingly. Initially I thought that our monthly Wilderness Day was a wonderful experience for the children, one where they could learn primitive skills and gain confidence in nature. It turned out to be so much more. Soon, we began to see the effects of students’ new animal tracking and observation skills in the classroom.

Tracking is the science and art of observing animal footprints and other signs for the purpose of gaining understanding of the landscape, along with the systems that make up the environment. The skilled tracker is able to observe their surroundings, discern clues, re-create some details, and make predictions about what might have happened. When students come upon an animal track, they first find twigs to frame the specimen, marking it for observation and study. Then the investigations, inquiries and wonderings begin. Is this a deer? Which direction is it traveling? Is it walking alone or are there others? Is this a mama deer or baby? Was she going to find water? Where would she go for water and what would she eat? Kindergarten students may have ideas or stories about the mama and baby deer, while questions from the older grades may span out to take in the time of day, the weather conditions, the flora and fauna of the area, the watershed, and so on.

On a recent Wilderness Day, trekking through a dry creek bed, our students came upon fallen trees that created a natural dam in the riverbed where they discovered a ball heaven! The dam was filled with worn and dirty basketballs, soccer balls, kickballs, and tennis balls. The children decided this must be the place where old balls go when they die. An obvious first assumption – yet with a bit of guided inquiry, they concluded that there must be a park or schoolyard upstream, and especially with last year’s record rains, the balls were lost to the rushing waters.