How to Host a Garden Snail Race

Photo of a snail crossing over a black line while wearing a tiny rectangular piece of paper that reads: Thingamababy 5555 Garden Snail Land Nationals.

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?

Overview

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.

Photo of two concentric circles on white poster board. Six nails are in the center circle with has a 3.5 inch diameter. The outer circle has a 15.5 inch diameter.

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.

Photo of three snail race tags, the first identified with a red 0001 number, the second identified with a green 3333 number and the third identified with a rectangular block of orange. Each is also labeled Thingamababy Garden Snail Land Nationals.

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.

Photo of six snails hiding in their shells in their inner circle starting positions.

"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!" — 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.

Overview photos of snails moving on the poster board racing track.

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.

Two photos of my daughter. In one she is pointing at a snail and grimacing, in the other she is smiling happily at a pile of snails.

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.

Photo of one snail on top of two other snails, and a fourth snail beginning to climb them all.

I confess. The scenes above and below were accomplished by turning a speedy snail toward other snails who were already playing piggyback.

Another photo of the piggybacking snails, now with the speedy snail sitting on top of two other snails.

Photo of one snail turning to follow a second snail.

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.

Photo of three snails nearing the finish line while the snail in the middle chooses to instead begin climbing a nearby competitor.

Photo of a snail crossing the finish line dragging two other snails suctioned onto 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!

Links!

Update: Thanks to the anonymous BoingBoing reader who pointed out this awesome Nascar snail parody.

Comments

19 Responses to “How to Host a Garden Snail Race”

  1. Joleen says:

    Too fun! :) Thanks for sharing.

    November 19th, 2007 at 1:51 pm

  2. Chief Family Officer says:

    At first I thought this was a joke.

    Then I thought, Eww! He really did this.

    Finally, I thought, I bet the kids had a lot of fun! (Not that I’ll be doing this myself anytime soon…)

    November 19th, 2007 at 9:42 pm

  3. Wendy says:

    THIS IS WONDERFUL. You sound like a great parent, your kid(s) are lucky to have you!

    November 19th, 2007 at 10:28 pm

  4. Lis Monahan says:

    Yes, snail races are fun! We have been holding them for a few years at our annual Lemon-Aid fundraiser. There is a video on our blog http://www.indiesticks.com/movies/LemonAid3ivx.mov
    Snails can be hard to find in droughty California. Look on the inside boards of well watered raised beds. We race them from the corners of a board to a circle with lettuce!

    November 19th, 2007 at 11:53 pm

  5. judy says:

    AJ, that is totally amazing. I love the little numbers each snail has. Is it possible you could make a video of some races and then we could bet on the snails too? I’m seeing an off-shore industry here!

    November 20th, 2007 at 3:59 am

  6. Fritz says:

    Reminds me of an old snail joke. It seems there were several little-kid snails who decided to play race cars. One snail put an “R” label on his shell and another put an “S” label on his shell. A third snail dropped the green flag and they started around the track as fast as they could go. The “R” snail took off in the lead, leaving the “S” snail in the dust. Finally, on the backstretch, the “S” snail put on a burst of speed, catching up with, and passing the “R” snail. One of the other snails who was watching the race excitedly exclaimed, “Look at that S-car go!”

    November 20th, 2007 at 9:16 am

  7. zale says:

    I am SO going to have to borrow some of my friends kids and do this next summer!

    looks like tons of fun

    thanks!

    November 20th, 2007 at 4:32 pm

  8. Christy says:

    Your snails would look good with racing colors painted on, and even better once released back into the yard! Check these out:

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Snail-Painting/

    November 20th, 2007 at 6:07 pm

  9. ben says:

    http://www.hairyfish.org/2007/11/how-to-host-garden-snail-race.html

    Great idea very funny

    HF

    November 21st, 2007 at 12:53 pm

  10. Bee says:

    Now I’m simply waiting for a rainy day.

    November 22nd, 2007 at 12:37 pm

  11. Gillian says:

    I keep 2 snails as pets but l never done snail races! Thankz for all of that great info espicially the video!

    November 22nd, 2007 at 11:27 pm

  12. AJ says:

    Sorry Judy, I would post a race video, but Youtube limits free accounts to 5 minute clips.

    Er, actually, this blogger limps along on an 8-year-old PC not quite ready for editing video. When my CPU grew too slow to play the latest intense video games, I switched to hosting snail battles. Go figure.

    November 26th, 2007 at 2:22 pm

  13. EvelineDG says:

    Live and let live, exactly!
    Great idea! You snails, eat this next summer ;-)

    November 28th, 2007 at 12:24 am

  14. Mom of kindergarden teacher says:

    I laughed and laughed. We used to have slug races in Washington State where I grew up. I am now in California so will pass this on to my son who teaches in an after school enrichment program for kindergardeners. They will have a blast some rainy day…well he is always asking me about rainy day activities for the kids!

    thanks

    :-)

    April 4th, 2008 at 10:29 pm

  15. Unknown says:

    You are so lucky! Snails are like my second favorite animals. I would keep them as ppets but sadly I don’t even have a single snail in my yard, but I want to find one so bad!

    May 22nd, 2008 at 5:12 pm

  16. Unknown (same as above) says:

    Oh, once and a while I see a slug. But I like snails better.

    May 22nd, 2008 at 5:14 pm

  17. CanCan says:

    When I taught ESL in Asia, I asked my students did they eat snails (because they eat frogs and insects, so…?). They said no, but they asked me did I ever have the “snail kiss”. I still have no idea what they are talking about. Apparently you let the snail kiss you? Eww?

    May 25th, 2008 at 8:34 pm

  18. Kyle & Ashley says:

    I LOVE snails!!!! We are going to get a whole family of snails and have a snail farm!!! And then we will race them and place bets on them. We are going to get the whole town involved and maks LOTS of $$$$$$$!!!!!!!! WE ARE GOING TO BE FAMOUS SNAIL PEOPLE!

    June 10th, 2008 at 12:17 am

  19. Annika says:

    I have a snail too. My friend found one on her step and is tring to catch it for a pet. I can’t wait to tell her about a snail race! Thanks so much. I can’t wait to try!
    Yours,
    Annika

    June 11th, 2008 at 3:04 pm

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