Monday, November 19th, 2007
How to Host a Garden Snail Race
Snail races are a fun, educational, eye-opening free activity for kids. Aside from learning about this overlooked and much maligned creature, you’ll teach your child that the natural world is neat, not scary.
Eeeew? No way. Snails are like dirty diapers. After you’ve handled a few, they’re no big deal. Their slime is just a lubricant that helps them move around.
In my childhood, my dad poisoned garden snails and paid me 5 cents for each one I stomped. As a dad today, I give snails the run of our yard. They were here before me, and we don’t grow crops, so hey, live and let live.
During a round of the Snail’s Pace Race board game with my 3-year-old daughter, I thought, why not hold a real race?
Six snails will compete on a surface containing two concentric circles. The snails are placed in the inner circle and spectators watch the snails "sprint" to the outer circle.
1. Prepare a race track. We raced indoors, and started with a sheet of poster board (two for $1 at a dollar store). I used a large metal mixing bowl and a drinking glass to trace a large and small circle.
Our inner 3.5" diameter circle was a perfect fit for six snails. The outer circle’s diameter was 15.5", providing a 6 inch racing distance between the circles. Go even larger if you can because snails are faster than you think.
Outdoor racing is possible, but likely to occur after sunset because snails are nocturnal. Draw your circles on the ground using chalk. Apparently chalk is a good source of calcium and is provided in powdered form to snails kept in classrooms.
We’ve used the same poster board sheet six times so far. The inner circle has a bit of snail debris, and there are dried slime trails, but all-in-all it’s holding up well.
2. Prepare a means to identify the snails. I created tiny printable racing numbers [PDF] stylized after the sheets marathon runners wear on their backs.
If you don’t have an unsmudgeable laser printer like me, place a strip of clear tape over each ink jet racing number to protect it from snail slime.
Next, cut a set of numbers and place them on a flat surface upside down. Cut a strip of tape down the middle lengthwise. Take snippets of tape, turn the sticky side out, and roll them in a loop, then press them onto the backside of each racing number.
3. Capture some snails. Hold your child’s hand and go hunting with flashlights in your yard an hour or two after sunset. Holding hands is very important because its easy for a kid to slip in a wet and unfamiliar environment. Place a large mixing bowl in a lit area where you will deposit collected snails.
If no snails are present, try an hour later.
When you find one, tap its shell so it retreats inside, then pick it up and carry it to the bowl. Don’t worry about snails escaping because many will be freaked and stay hidden for a while. Any escapees won’t get too far.
Try to collect twice as many snails as you will actually be racing.
"It’s an awesome spectacle. An audacious display
of seething opponents once again gathered in an obstinate attempt to
prove superiority of the Helix aspersa unequaled in our lifetime. The
crowds swell with anticipation as the tentacled eyes come out of their
shells!" â€” Better Off Dead
4. Prepare the racers. Many of the mollusks will be too skittish to come out of their shells. You want brave snails. Wait until one peeks out of his shell and starts moving. Grab that one and, while holding the shell in the air, press a racing number onto the shell. DO NOT apply the number while on the ground because you’ll smoosh and possibly injure the snail.
Lift off any protruding twig or leaf debris from the underside of your selected snails and place the racers inside the inner circle facing outward. If any snails try to jump the gun, tap their shell so they retreat inside.
Quickly place your snail bowl outside so your unchosen snails can safely escape.
5. Dim the lights. Instead of eyes, snails have four tentacles or "feelers." The two long upper feelers are light-sensitive organs, probably not true eyes. Bright lights may cause your snails to hide.
6. Cheer on the athletes. Some make a dash for the finish line. Some climb over each other. Some never peek outside their shells. That’s the unpredictable kooky nature of snail races. Each one is different.
If you have a speedy snail standing out from a sluggish crowd, let him win, then start him over. After he wins a few times, point him toward stationary snails and see what happens.
7. Consider a rematch. Running a second race with the same snails presents certain challenges. If one snail raced over the top of a competitor, you’ll need to dry the victim with toilet paper (most absorbent) so a new racing decal can be applied.
It’s wise to print, cut and prepare more than one set of racing numbers in case you damage one upon first application, or some are damaged after the first race.
8. A note about rain. Wet weather brings snails out into the open in our yard, but wet shells are not conducive to the application of racing decals. You might need to lightly dry shells with toilet paper and let sit for a few minutes.
9 Marvel at these creatures. It’s great fun to watch snails move. An especially plucky snail will lift its head as if to look at you, or raise its "tail" as it speeds along. And there’s nothing better than watching a slow-motion train wreck as snails turn and collide with each other.
10. Return the racers to the wild. When the night is over, remove the decals and put the snails back into the same general area where they were found. Let them live to race another day.
And remember, don’t give up! After each race night you learn something new about snail behavior and the whole process gets easier and more fun.
I tried coaxing my daughter to touch the snail’s shell. At first she would only point to it. Later she ran her finger over it with as much trepidation as when she has petted snakes during educational demonstrations.
I confess. The scenes above and below were accomplished by turning a speedy snail toward other snails who were already playing piggyback.
Snails seem like pack animals. The two above were headed for the finish when Green 3333 reversed course, and Pink 4444 turned to follow him.
The photo-finish above was accomplished by Man o’ War, a workhorse of a snail if there ever was one. Two lazy snails latched onto him in the starting circle and Man o’ War dragged them to the finish!
- Land snail informational page
- Book: Snails Live in Houses Too: Environmental Education for the Early Years
- Classroom curriculum: Eye-to-eye with garden snails
Update: Thanks to the anonymous BoingBoing reader who pointed out this awesome Nascar snail parody.