Museum of Science, Boston

Books for Kids

  • Field Guide to Tracks
    , by
    Myron and Charles Chase
  • How to be a Nature Detective
    , by
    Millicent E. Selsam
  • In the Woods: Who's Been Here?
    , by
    Lindsay Barrett George

Contact Us

Contact the Discovery Center and Living Lab staff at

February 2010: Nature Detectives

Nature Detectives

A "nature detective", or a naturalist, is a scientist that studies plants and animals in the world around them. They search for evidence that can help them discover how a particular animal might live in its natural habitat. Like detectives who solve crimes, nature detectives follow clues to answer questions like, “what happened?” “who was here?” or, “how are these things related?” They also may work in nature centers, zoos, parks and museums, educating people about nature and natural history.

The Discovery Center's Nature Detectives activity teaches children how to evaluate clues in nature through observing, classifying and using tools. They can use a magnifying glass, notebook, compass, ruler and field guides to aid them in looking more closely at clues like track prints, tufts of fur, food remains or animal scat.

Going on a nature exploration can help a child learn about relationships that animals have with each other and with the environment that they live in. It is important for naturalists to conduct their investigations with respect for the living creatures around them.

Nature Detectives at home

You can continue your Nature Detective explorations at home by

Be a Nature Detective in Your Own Yard

To begin, choose a safe and familiar area to explore. You may want to go on a fossil hunt near your home, search for animal tracks at a local park or playground or simply observe wildlife in your neighborhood. The clues to nature’s mysteries are out there waiting to be discovered!

Gather up some supplies, and head out into nature with a grown-up.

Nature Detective Tools:

•Magnifying glass
•Ruler/Measuring Tape

Once on site, be quiet, move slowly and keep your eyes peeled! To a naturalist, something as simple as a tuft of fur, a pile of feathers or a set of animal tracks can tell a detailed story.

Make note of your observations in your observation sketchbook. Draw, take pictures and collect samples. A rock, leaf or shell could be important. Always take care NOT to disturb even the smallest of wildlife! Leave living things where you found them.

Draw conclusions! Use a field guide to identify plants and animals, classify your finds and answer questions like, “what is this?” “how did it get here?” and, “what does it mean?” You never know what your find might turn out to reveal!

Make Your Own Trackways at Home

•Large sheet of paper (check your local art supplier)
Animal footprint stamps
•Ink pads

Stamp a trackway of animal prints across the paper. Make a single set of tracks for an identification exercise or try using the tracks of more than one animal to create a story! Use a field guide from a book or online to help figure out what animal made these tracks. Incorporate tools a Nature Detective might use like a magnifying glass, ruler, notebook or compass, for your child's exploration. You can use this trackway (pictured below) to do this activity on a small scale, or copy it to make your own!

Things to think about when looking at tracks:
•Is it a hand-print or a footprint?
•Is this from a big or small animal?
•How many toes/fingers does it have?
•Does this animal have claws?
•If it has claws, what might they be used for?
•Do you think this animal walks on two legs or four?
•Try using your ruler to measure the print!
•Have you ever seen a print like this before?