How to Find and Cast Animal Footprints With Your Kids

Want something fun to do outside with your kids?

Interested in learning about your furry and feathered neighbors while creating unique keepsakes?

Making animal footprint casts allows you and your kids to get creative, crafty and scientific.

I find that kids will voluntarily turn off the TV, head outside with their friends and even practice their math skills without knowing it.

In this article I’ll show you how to locate animal tracks, create casts and start a collection of animal footprints.

Animal footprint casts: get creative with your kids as you find tracks made by everything from dogs, cats and big black crows to raccoons, skunks and coyotes.

Why Collect Casts of Animal Footprints?

Casting footprints is like going on a scavenger hunt; however, instead of you leaving the clues, they’re left by the animals in your neighborhood.

Your kids will become curious about their environment and more aware of what’s around them. You’ll be able to slip in learning, fun and quality time through this activity.

Depending on where you live, you may find tracks made by everything from dogs, cats and big black crows to raccoons, skunks and coyotes.

dog tracks

You can always count on dogs when looking for prints.

With a little imagination, you might also be able to find tracks from urban wildcats, wolves and even Sasquatches.

After reading this article, you’ll know how to make casts of Sasquatch tracks, if you happen to find some.

Making animal footprint casts is not expensive, but it does require some preparation and special ingredients. It can also get messy (which I’ve found is a key benefit, as far as children are concerned).

Leave a little time for cleanup at the end. This is a good time to recap your experience with your children.

You Will Need

  • Willing amateur naturalists (at least one)
  • 5-pound bag of plaster of Paris (at most arts and crafts shops, as well as home hardware stores for under $10)
  • Snack size Ziploc bags (optional)
  • Water (Check your box of plaster. Some require a 1:1 ratio of water to plaster of Paris, while others require a 1:2 ratio. For example, if the ratio is 1:1, you’ll need one cup of water for every cup of plaster.)
  • 3 or 4 disposable containers for mixing the plaster (like used butter containers)
  • An old measuring cup
  • Disposable stirring spoons or sticks (at least one per child)
  • Old birthday party hats that have the tops cut off (optional, one per cast)
  • A pocket guide on animal tracks for your area (get one that’s laminated and has a ruler down the side like this one from Acorn Naturalists)
  • Paper and a marker (a small dollar store notebook is ideal)
  • Wax paper (optional, but helpful for wrapping casts that have set but are still hardening)
  • Tupperware containers (one per cast to preserve them as they harden for 24 hours)

Preparation Time

15 minutes (once water has been added, you have 10 to 15 minutes to work with the plaster before it begins to set)

Activity Time

45 minutes+—this depends on:

  • where you go to find footprints such as your backyard, a nearby duck pond or an urban wetland
  • time it takes to find footprints (and how keen the eyes of your footprint finders are)
  • the number of footprints you decide to cast

It takes 30 minutes for a plaster cast to set. Much of the activity time is spent waiting for this to happen. After that, the plaster takes 24 hours to fully harden.

Location

Your backyard, garden, local park, forests, trails, creeks, rivers, urban wetland, beaches or (if it’s rainy and you have a willing pet) your bathtub.

Read on to learn how to make plaster casts of animal footprints your family finds.

#1: Get Organized

The key to having fun during the footprint casting process is to get organized at home before you go outside. This avoids last-minute scrambling that can interfere with the short window of time (10 to 15 minutes) you have to mix and pour the plaster.

I’ve found that it is easier to get your kids to measure the plaster before heading out. I asked my son to create one-cup portions of plaster. He then put them into little plastic snack bags. It was a responsibility he took very seriously.

It’s a good idea to have a few extra bags of plaster. It leaves room for any incidents, like wind blowing away the plaster, spills and overeager plaster mixing.

measure plaster

Pre-measure the plaster into one-cup portions at home.

Read more tips for working with plaster of Paris here.

We did this on the morning that we were going out to make the casts. My son became very interested in the activity and asked a lot of questions. All morning he speculated on what kinds of animal prints we might find. Ask your kids what animal footprints they hope to find. Their answers may surprise you.

He also wanted to include his friend from next door. We called up and not only my son’s friend, but also his mother and teenage sister joined in our adventure.

#2: Check Your Footprint Casting Kit

The first time we tried casting, we forgot to bring water for drinking and mixing plaster. We had to make a pit stop at a local store. It didn’t take too long, but spend a few minutes at home to make sure you have everything you need.

footprint casting kit

Footprint casting kit.

We decided to pack up our kit in a reusable shopping bag. My son and his friend carried it from our vehicle. This really helped to get both kids involved and curbed their impatience to get started.

#3: Head to a Footprint-Friendly Location

You can find footprints in any area with damp soil, mud or sand. Wetlands, urban parks with duck ponds and backyard gardens are ideal.

Footprint Fun Facts:

  • Did you know that the oldest known footprints made by humans are 3.6 million years old?
  • The Impressions are known as the Laetoli Footprints.
  • In 1978, approximately 70 prints were found in Tanzania, Africa.
  • An early human ancestor known as Australopithecus afarensis is thought to have made the footprints.
  • The prints were made in wet volcanic ash. When the volcano erupted again, the tracks were covered with more ash that preserved them.
  • Early humans needed no help at all from Plaster of Paris to preserve their footprints.

We decided to visit an urban wetland that’s a ten-minute drive away. Here, the forest, river and sea all come together. It was a beautiful sunny day so we wanted to enjoy the scenery.

One of the best places to find animals is where two habitats meet. Examples of these are places where a forest meets a river, or an urban streetscape meets a park.

wetlands

Urban wetlands are fabulous places to find footprints.

My son knew that the muddy banks of this urban wetland would be full of footprints. I’m also pretty sure he wanted to splash about with full approval from mom.

#4: Scout for Signs of Animals

When we arrived, we asked the boys to look for animal tracks. They headed right for the mud. We had to wonder if they were instinctive amateur naturalists or just excited to get wet?

looking for animal tracks

Kids love to search for animal tracks.

Keep an eye out for signs of animal activity. Look for feathers on the ground, gnaw marks on the trees and animal paths in the bushes.

We found a lot of trees that were wrapped in mesh. When we saw a tree up close, we understood why. Beavers live here. They gnaw through the trees and build structures in the creek.

beaver sign

Beavers were here.

The boys also noticed this beaver path.

animal trail

An animal path is a great place to look for tracks.

We were heading over to the beaver path to look for beaver prints when caws from above drew our attention.

great blue heron

Great blue herons were people-watching from the trees.

Up in the trees, six great blue herons were watching us.

#5: Find and Identify Tracks

The boys abandoned the beaver track search and started to look for great blue heron footprints. The area was also being used by ducks.

ducks

Resident ducks.

Almost immediately, the boys spotted some bird prints.

bird footprint

Great blue heron or duck footprint?

The time had come to consult the guidebook. There are also several websites and apps for your phone that can help identify the animal tracks you find. A lot of tracks look very similar.

This print didn’t have the typical webbing pattern of a duck print. The boys wanted to know if they had found the mark of a great blue heron.

To find out what kind of prints they had found, the boys needed to line up the animal track pocket guide with the tracks.

guide card

Our guidebook states that duck prints are 8 cm (3 inches). Great Blue Heron prints are a minimum of 13 cm (5 inches).

We didn’t see any of the webbing that’s typical for ducks. Could we have found a great blue heron print?

ruler

Measuring prints helps identify what kind of animal made them.

It was helpful to measure the print. This answered our questions about identity.

duck measurement

The results are in. Duck it is.

The print was 8 cm (3 inches). This helped us identify the track as made by a duck. The boys were disappointed for a moment and decided not to cast it. However, they quickly recovered and set out to hunt down more tracks.

A moment later they made an announcement. There were ‘wolf’ prints in the mud. While the boys had definitely found canine prints, I was 99% sure they were from a dog. Still, we went with it and declared them ‘urban wolf’ prints.

#6: Prepare the Cast

Once the boys had chosen a track, it was time to mix the plaster and water.

boy with cup

Measuring is a great opportunity to practice math skills without even being aware of it.

First, add one cup of water to a mixing container. Then, get the kids to stir in the plaster. If you add the water first, the mixture will be less lumpy.

The plaster of Paris that we used required a ratio of 1:1. We already had our plaster measured into one-cup portions, so we just needed one cup of water.

The boys were careful to stir until there were no lumps or air bubbles left. When the plaster became as thick as pancake batter, we were ready to start pouring.

mixing plaster

Stir until the mixture is smooth and as thick as pancake batter.

Here’s a quick, inexpensive trick: use an old party hat (with the top cut off) to form a mold around the track.

cast mold

Old birthday party hats make great molds.

Pouring the mixture right into the track can damage it. Aim for the side of the track and allow the mixture to seep into the print.

pouring plaster

Pouring the cast mixture requires a little patience.

Let the plaster set for 30 minutes. In a damp area this may take a little longer.

While we waited, the boys had a hard time containing themselves. It was like the temptation of wet sidewalk cement. To distract them from ‘checking’ on the cast by poking it, we played some running games and sang songs about animals.

boys playing

Plan some simple games to play while you’re waiting for the casts to set.

It wasn’t long before the 30 minutes were up.

#7: Collect the Cast

We had to dig the cast out carefully. The plaster was set but still delicate.

collect cast

Carefully pry the cast from the mud.

The boys soon found that they had to handle the cast gently or chunks would break off.

To transport and store the delicate cast, it helped to line a Tupperware container with wax paper and place the cast inside.

We made sure to add a note with the animal’s identity on it (both dogs and wolves are canines, so we were technically accurate).

identify cast

Identify the casts so you can easily remember just which animal made the print.

We closed the lids to take the casts back to the car.

store cast

Tupperware helps protect the casts during transport.

At home, we put the casts outside on the deck to dry for 24 hours.

#8: Show Off Your Cast

The next day, my son eagerly showed his cast off to his grandmother. I was surprised by all of the things he remembered. He told her about the beaver sign, the herons and how to measure footprints.

boy with cast

Casts make great show-and-tell items. They help kids remember all kinds of details.

We were pretty happy with our ‘urban wolf’ print.

poodle footprint cast

The first footprint cast in our neighborhood ‘urban wolf’ collection, courtesy of Ziggy, our mini-poodle.

Some Final Thoughts

We had a great day outdoors making animal print casts. I hope your family will enjoy this fun activity, too!

The boys now want to make a whole collection of ‘wolf’ prints with the assistance of all of the neighborhood dogs.

This fall we’re heading to the Rocky Mountains to visit some family. I’m hoping for a prize track from a grizzly bear or a mountain lion. My son wants to know if we can make some ‘wolf’ prints from his uncle’s black lab.

We may not be building the eclectic collection of animal print casts that I had first had in mind. However, letting my son pursue his collection of domestic dog prints is tremendous fun.

He’s looking into new locations and sizes and also wants to paint the names of the dogs on each cast. Who knows? It could end up being a business.

What do you think? Have you ever made a cast of an animal footprint? What kind of animal footprint would you most like to cast? Please share your ideas and photos in the comments below.

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About the Author, Amy Dunn Moscoso

Amy Dunn Moscoso is a Vancouver freelance writer who writes for and about business, entrepreneurs and online marketing in publications and at www.contentsiren.com. Other posts by »


  • http://www.mykidsadventures.com/ Jennifer Ballard

    Thanks, Amy! What a great way to get the kids outside and doing something different.

    I hope your son’s dog footprint casting business is a huge success! :)

  • Amy Dunn Moscoso

    Hello Jennifer,

    Anything that gets them outside.

    Maybe we’ll launch the dog casting business prior to Christmas…

    Amy

  • Udo Engel

    Hey Amy, thanks for that wonderful inspiration! My son is 13 months old, so maybe a bit too young still. But I will keep this in mind – it is really a great way to spend time with my son outside and make him enjoy & understand the nature :)

  • Amy Dunn Moscoso

    Hi Udo,

    Thanks for your comment.

    13 months may be a little too young – my 10 month old tried to eat the plaster. Something for the future though. I used to do this with my dad as a kid and it fostered a lifelong love of nature that I hope to pass on.

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