Whose Track Is That? Preschool Explorers Study Animal Sign at Sand Pond Woodlands

Reflections by Naturalist & Walk Leader Andrea Higgins
Photos courtesy of Halley Steinmetz

Today was a very special day as the Preschool Explorers gathered for the first adventure of the season! Familiar faces and new friends gathered under gray skies at the beautiful 77-acre Sand Pond Woodlands. This Preserve is comprised of pine and oak forest, featuring spectacular views of the Herring River.  As Explorers gathered, we discussed the plans of the day, then set off to begin our journey.

Soft pine needle covered trails led us towards a wonderful world of nature treasures. Together we congregated in a circle under the pines to pause and engage our senses. First we paid attention to our ears and Explorers excitedly exclaimed they could hear “birds”, “clouds”, “breezes” and “footsteps.”  Centering our attention on our sense of smell next, we took some big breaths in through our nose. Wee little faces scrunched up to take some audible sniffs and Explorers announced they could smell “leaves”, “the sky”, “woodland animals”, and “owls”. Huddled together, we glanced all around, eyes wide open, and shared our observations, including “trees”, “leaves”, “dirt” and “pine cones.”

Pinecones were the subject of our first child-led search – pockets and caregiver’s hands were quickly filled with these forest floor finds. An intricate spider web captured our attention and together we admired the elaborate silky threads woven in such a way that it collected water droplets from the moisture of the morning fog and mist. Next friends gently touched the spongy softness of the lichen decorating the forest floor like light green clouds. Tiny hands tenderly examined the textures showing them to each other and to their families.

Arriving at the tarp I had set out on the ground with comfortable mats, one for each child, we settled in for the first story of the morning. I read Whose Tracks in the Snow? by Alexandra Milton, a beautifully illustrated natural-history picture book introducing children to animal tracks. Afterwards, I handed each child a canvas pre-stenciled with tracks from a deer, turkey, coyote, and bear. I invited the children to choose a marker or a crayon and, with assistance from their caregiver, trace their hands and feet onto the page to add their own unique tracks to the collection.

I next handed each child a recycled cardboard tray and a container of homemade cloud sand (created by mixing 8 cups of all-purpose flour with 1 cup of baby oil). Cloud dough is an excellent sensory activity: it smells good, has a soft and silky texture, and is fun to mold into different shapes. I handed each child an animal track stamp to press into their dough, then basked in these youngsters’ contagious glee. I’m grateful to witness moments like these: 10 children busily playing under the trees’ canopy, on a blanket of pine needles, making so many discoveries. 

While small hands smooshed dough and printed tracks I read another story. Whose Track is That? by Stan Tekiela is one of my favorite books for introducing children of all ages to wildlife tracking. This isn’t your typical storybook as every page has a picture, clues, and a question… whose track is that? After a guess is made, we could turn the page to discover the answer and learn more about each amazing animal featured in the book. After our story and sensory play, we carefully added our cloud sand back to its container so families could bring it with them and continue the play at home with cookie cutters, cars, or cups (options are practically endless.)

Time to explore some more! Explorers assisted with the clean-up and then lined up for a saunter. Together we wandered down the hill towards the river and admired an otter slide and some coyote scat (the science word for poop!). Very exciting to be standing in the same place an otter and a coyote had previously visited!

Had Mother Nature carpeted part of the forest floor? Bright green moss beckoned to be “petted” and all in attendance took turns touching the velvety softness of the ground cover. The next discovery was an oak gall and we discussed how these structures are formed. We also found mushrooms and smelled the leaves of the minty fresh wintergreen.

Sauntering down the trail to a collection of fallen trees we each took turns walking across them pretending to be different animals. We walked across the logs like squirrels, raccoons, and chipmunks. I received a special request to move like kangaroos across the logs, so of course, we did that too!

Our wonder wander enveloped us with the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. In reciprocity we filled the forest with laughter, smiles, appreciation, and Preschool Explorers’ joy. Our adventures have just begun, and I am so looking forward to all our Tuesday morning gatherings.

Happy Exploring!


Ms. Andrea