What moves slow and lives in a shell? Hint: it’s not a turtle. It’s a snail. Nearly everyone has a snail or two lurking around the garden. In fact garden snails feed on both living and decaying plants, which can actually damage garden crops. Because of this, snails are not often welcome visitors in the garden. Instead, they are viewed as pests. Nonetheless, snails make interesting educational subjects for kids. They’re not only neat to learn about but also fun to watch.
Take the Kids on a Snail Trail Hunt
In order for kids to study snails, it helps to have a living specimen. Take the kids out on a snail trail hunt. Snails do not like to come out when it’s hot, dry, or bright. They are nocturnal creatures, preferring to come out at night or during cloudy days. Snails also prefer moist areas, such as beneath leaves. The body of a snail is long, soft, and slimy. It moves by creeping slowly along on a flat foot located underneath its body. This foot also has a special gland that produces slimy mucus, which leaves a sticky, silvery-colored trail everywhere the snail goes, called snail trail. Once snail trail is exposed to air, it hardens. Snail trail is easily spotted glistening in the sun or shining under a flashlight at night.
So where do you look for snail trails? Most garden snails live in and around moist areas such as near ponds, in the woods, and of course, in the garden. They usually travel in irregular paths, oftentimes in a circle and sometimes even upside down. Take the kids for a walk on a cloudy day along a nature trail or at night in the backyard to see if they can spot any snail trails. Hunt for snail trail in the garden along walks and walls or beneath stones, leaves, or flowerpots. Follow the snail trail to see where it leads. Be aware, however, that not all snail trails are the same. It could belong to the slug instead. A slug is simply a snail without a shell. So how do you tell the two trails apart? If the snail trail is continuous, then it’s a slug. If there are breaks in the trail, it’s a snail.
If the kids are lucky enough to come across a snail, have them capture the creature and put it in a clear container, preferably with a lid, and air vents. Explain to them that land snails, like the common garden snail, have lungs and require air to breathe. Those living in water, however, breathe through gills, much like fish. Help the kids perform research to find out what types of leaves their snail prefers to eat and put some into the container. Let them add a few twigs, a rock, and some leaf litter from the woods. Keep it moist and allow the kids to watch the snail. Look closely at the way the snail moves and how it eats. Follow the path of snail trail left behind in its container. Most likely, the snail will travel along the sides and perhaps even upside down on the lid. Let the kids touch the snail, gently. What happened? Explain to them that when disturbed, the snail retreats back into its shell. It can even seal off the entrance using the same slimy mucus that creates the snail trail. This is how snails protect themselves against predators and dry weather. This is also how they sleep, or hibernate, during winter.
Snail Shell Activity
If the kids come up empty handed on their snail trail hunt, perhaps they will be lucky enough to come across a snail shell. This can also be used as a learning tool. Snail shells come in many different shapes and sizes, from round and spiral to flat and conical or even flat. Have them draw a picture of their shell. Do some research to determine what type of snail once lived in the shell using resource books.
Fun Snail Facts
Snails can live anywhere from 5-10 years; however, the oldest snail ever found was a whopping 15 years old. The largest snail measured 15 inches and weighed 2 pounds! Did you know that in many countries snails are considered a delicacy? It’s true. They are actually cooked and eaten, and referred to as ‘escargot’ on the menu.