By Matt Miller, The Nature Conservancy
My nephew Jacob excitedly called me over, with the impatience only an 11-year-old can muster. “You have to check this out,” he exclaimed.
He wasn’t urging us to view a new app on his iPad. He wanted us to see his latest find along a river: a set of raccoon tracks. And, as Jacob enthusiastically pointed out, these tracks seemed to be made not by your ordinary, run-of-the-mill raccoon. This thing must have been enormous. A big old boar coon, to be precise.
Looking for a new activity to get kids outside? Tracking may be close to the perfect activity.
Jacob and his brother Jack had actually initiated this day’s fun: They asked my wife and me to walk with them on the inch of snow, freshly fallen in northeastern Iowa. Immediately we began seeing tracks: cottontail rabbits, white-tailed deer, red fox, fox squirrel.
Wild animals can be difficult to see. But in the snow or mud, they leave signs of their passing. A seemingly empty woods suddenly becomes a treasure hunt for what animals had passed in the night.
There’s an element of mystery: What was the animal doing? Why did it stop there? Where is it now?
I’m well familiar with the oft-heard refrain: Kids aren’t going outside anymore. Conservationists’ solution to this is usually environmental education or highly-structured outdoor “learning” activities.
These are important. But sometimes it’s nice just to get outside and explore, without plans or goals. I know there is the fear that kids will get bored left to their own devices in the outdoors. I don’t think we give them enough credit.
My nephews found no trouble staying entertained. Here: a rabbit jumped between bushes, its distinctive and large back feet making striking indents. There: a coyote paused to survey the river bottom, perhaps looking for the escaping rabbit. With each new track, they’d bend down and construct their own story as to what was going on.
It helps that Jacob and Jack have parents who spend a lot of time with them outdoors, fishing and hunting and camping. They’re also blessed to have great places to explore, like the wooded bluffs on their grandparents’ farm where we searched for tracks.