Train your kids to be wildlife detectives

Wild animals are good at hiding. But showing kids how to discover their clues can inspire them to care about the habitats.

It won’t come as a shock to hear that kids love animals. And nothing cements a memory like catching a glimpse of a critter while spending time outdoors. The only problem? Bambi, Thumper, and Violet don’t always show up for their cameos, and children can quickly become frustrated or bored with a walk devoid of wildlife.

Fortunately, experts say critters are hiding all around us—provided you know where to look. What’s more, learning to seek out and decipher wildlife signs can help set kids up for a lifetime of rewards.

“Even if it's just watching ant trails or following a bee around a flower, we're going to care about those things, because when we watch them, we connect with them,” says Kelly Brenner, a Seattle-based naturalist and author of Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World. “And so we're going to be more connected to the natural world throughout our lives, and more in tune with climate change and pollution and all those other things that we need to fix ASAP.”

Hunting for creature clues can also allow children to experience the world through all their senses, which helps them slow down and be present.

“We human beings are visual creatures, right?” says David Mizejewski, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. “But it’s so important for us to encourage kids to experience nature with all of their senses.”

Of course, there’s another, more immediate reason to go looking for wildlife with your kids—it’s a super-fun activity that can be done anywhere. For instance, looking closely at a common tree will reveal leaves pocked by strange, insect-produced growths called galls, branches adorned with spiderwebs, and bark crawling with camouflaged arthropods.

“There’s nowhere you’re going to go where you can’t find signs of wildlife,” Brenner says. “I mean, literally nowhere.”

Keeping kids—and critters—safe

Before anyone goes poking their head in a hole or chasing down bear tracks, it’s a good idea to lay down some ground rules.

For starters, if you and your child are lucky enough to find large animals, such as bears, wolves, bison, or even deer, the National Park Service recommends keeping a distance of at least 100 yards. Smaller animals require just 25 yards of space.

It’s also beneficial to remind children that wild animals are just that: wild. That means that a startled animal of any size may be unpredictable and capable of defending itself; that collecting rocks or shells might be destroying something’s home; and that people food is not proper wildlife food. (This article provides more do’s and don’ts for wildlife watching.)

“If you never try to approach, touch, pick up, pet, or take a selfie with a wild animal, your chances of being bitten, scratched, stung, kicked, envenomated, or killed by that wild animal are pretty close to zero,” Mizejewski says. “Watch wildlife from a distance and don’t treat wild animals like pets—then everyone wins.”

How to find the animals

Ready to play wildlife detective? Here are a few clues that signal wildlife may be near.

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