Going Out - Stalking and Tracking

Posted by Greg MacDonald on

Going Out has tended to become an exploration of urban society.  The children independently organize field trips to places of interest within their town, in order to collect information or to obtain various materials.  Maria Montessori saw a wider canvas than this, and it focused upon the children’s connection to nature:  

 There is no description, no image in any book that is capable of replacing the sight of real trees, and all the life to be found around them, in a real forest. Something emanates from those trees which speaks to the soul, something no book, no museum is capable of giving. The wood reveals that it is not only the trees that exist, but a whole, inter- related collection of lives. And this earth, this climate, this cosmic power are necessary for the development of all these lives. The myriads of life around the trees, the majesty, the variety are things one must hunt for, and which no one can bring into the school.

How often is the soul of man – especially that of the child – deprived because one does not put him in contact with nature?
(Maria Montessori – From Childhood to Adolescence)

Miss Lena Wiramaratne conducted the elementary class that grew in Kodaikanal, during the time that Dr. Montessori and her son Mario were interned in India during the Second World War. Reminiscing about this time, Miss Lena said:

…We used to go out for rambles, or walks, every day.  At noontime, Mario joined us and showed (the children) leaves and flowers and we would go fishing in the pond and bring the pond animals home.  Mario made aquariums and terrariums, even for the little ones.”
(Part II – The Kodaikanal Experience – The Origins of Cosmic Education [Kahn-Wiramaratne Interview], NAMTA Journal)

Of these terrariums, Mario Montessori said:

Biology includes not only plants, it included animals. It involves relationships.  I wanted to show the children the possibilities of survival within a reconstructed environment.  So we created these terrariums to show the collaboration between plants and animals.  We would catch one animal at a time, observe them in our constructed surroundings and then return them to nature after a while.  When the curiosity of the children seemed satisfied, we would move on to a different animal and a different concept.
(Part II – The Kodaikanal Experience – The Origins of Cosmic Education [Kahn-Montessori Interview], NAMTA Journal)

Going Out into nature is an opportunity that many children seldom have, but it is a powerful experience and we should make every effort to make it possible for our children to safely explore the natural world around them. 

There are skills associated with safely exploring nature, and elementary children find learning these skills to be irresistible.  Even if their access to wild areas is limited or non-existent, they can apply the same skills to experiences in parklands, in gardens, and even in vacant lots.  What follows are some notes on skills that can be introduced to elementary children ...

Moving Quietly

The fox walk maximizes the opportunity to feel a walking surface and to slowly place one’s weight so that sticks and leaves etc. are slowly compressed.  Noises are thus minimized.  To fox walk:

  • To locate wild animals, use your peripheral vision, which picks up movement better – Then turn your eyes in the direction of the movement to identify the animal.
  • Approach from downwind – So the breeze blows from the animal towards you.
  • Lightly place your foot onto the ground starting with the outside of the ball of the foot.
  • Without fully placing your weight on this foot, roll from the little toe area to the big toe area until the whole front section of the foot is placed.
  • Slowly lower the rest of the foot, gradually increasing the weight placed, until the foot is providing fully support. If you feel twigs or leaves, or if you hear them, you may be able to shift the position of your foot to avoid them.  If not, slow down the placement of full weight, reducing and muffling the sound.
  • Look before placing each foot – Use the area that has the least amount of debris that might cause a sound, or the area that has qualities that would reduce sound (moss, for example).


Periods of up to one minute between steps may be necessary for a careful stalk.  Points to remember when stalking include:

  • Use the fox walk to minimize the sound of each step. Feel with your feet.
  • Every movement must be isolated, slow and flowing.
  • Keep your eyes on the animal and just glance when possible at the ground etc. as you plan your route.
  • Use your peripheral vision to map your path.
  • Be prepared to freeze in the middle of a movement if the animal looks up, or appears to be suddenly more alert. Unusual movements attract the attention of an animal.  If your movement is noticed and the animal stares at you, remain immobile – It is likely that the animal, seeing no further movement, will relax again.
  • If the weather is cold, the fog of your breath may give you away. Breathe downwards, so that your breath is concealed by the shape of your chest.
  • Move around all obstacles, including tree branches and twigs that will “rattle” if you push past them. Even if it requires a longer route, it is much better to go around obstacles than to brush against them.
  • Keep your arms by your side, making your overall shape less human-like and more tree-like.
  • Keep obstacles between you and the animal as much as possible. Look through bushes rather than around them.
  • If a twig snaps under your foot or if you make some other sound, freeze immediately.Individual sounds often don’t alarm wild animals as they happen all of the time – It is a pattern of sounds that causes them to go on the alert or to flee.


  • Look for trails, which often have various animal tracks impressed into their surface and/or droppings deposited.
  • Look for rub marks or scratches, which may be caused incidentally as animals move along a trail, or which may be worn because an animal uses this place/plant more frequently.
  • Look for hair tufts caught in bushes.
  • Look for feathers on the ground.
  • Look for multiple deposits of droppings (which may indicate that birds/animals use the overhead area regularly).
  • Look for vegetation damage: A 45 degree chew indicates rodents. Serrated edges to the cut indicates deer, which tear plants. Mastication suggests carnivores, which chew plants to obtain minerals.  Broken foliage may have been caused by the animal’s movement.
  • Look for pellets of hair, bones and feathers. Pellets are regurgitated by birds such as owls and hawks.
  • Look for ground surface damage, which may indicate animal movement or the search for food.
  • Look for scat (but don’t touch it). The droppings left by different animals can be classified, and the animal that left the droppings can be identified.

When examining a possible animal track, make sure that any light source is opposite you, across from the suspected track. Lower your head close to the ground and scan with the eye closest to the ground.  You may find:

  • Compressions, where the animal’s feet have pressed dust etc. down.
  • Dullness, where morning dew was picked up by the animal’s feet.
  • Shining, where the animal’s feet bent vegetation over so that it catches the light at a different angle to every other plant.

Identifying Animal Tracks

Every animal has its own characteristic track. Animal groups also share many track characteristics in common. For example, the cat family typically leave tracks without claw marks, because cats retract their claws.  The dog family, in contrast, leave tracks with claw marks present.

Children will enjoy researching animal tracks and gait patterns, and then applying this knowledge on their nature walks.  They will be fascinated by books and posters that document common animal tracks in their state or country, and also by such references that provide details of the tracks left by more exotic animals. 

Bottom Line  

The children should Go Out into urban environments and they should also go out into more natural, rural environments.  In this way, Going Out is fully realized, and the children's connection to the natural world is reinforced.


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