How to Find and Cast Animal Footprints 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The boys also noticed this beaver path.
We were heading over to the beaver path to look for beaver prints when caws from above drew our attention.
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.
Almost immediately, the boys spotted some bird prints.
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.
We didn’t see any of the webbing that’s typical for ducks. Could we have found a great blue heron print?
It was helpful to measure the print. This answered our questions about identity.
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.
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.
Here’s a quick, inexpensive trick: use an old party hat (with the top cut off) to form a mold around the track.
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.
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.
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.
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).
We closed the lids to take the casts back to the car.
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.
We were pretty happy with our ‘urban wolf’ print.
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.