by Marsha Rakestraw

Every choice we make has an impact on people, animals, and the earth.

Our footprints, both physical and metaphorical, are everywhere.

In the activity “Leave Only Footprints,”  participants (grades 6 and up) use paper footprints to simulate the impact of their choices on the earth. Extension activities allow students to explore their ecological footprints and what choices can be made to reduce them.

Here’s how it works:

Gather these materials:

  • 20-30 8 ½” x 11” sheets of colored paper with clipart footprints on them for each participant
  • facts and information about ecological footprints

Once you’ve introduced participants to the concept of an ecological footprint and what it means:

1.    Give each participant 20-30 sheets of colored paper with big footprints on them. No one stands next to someone with the same color of paper. Participants stand in a large circle facing inward. The presenter also participates. (Depending on the size of the class, you may wish to have several observers.)

2.    Ask participants a series of questions (see below). The choices for each question are weighted, loosely based on their ecological impact. After the first question is read, participants put down a certain number of sheets horizontally in front of them, depending on which option most accurately reflects their current lifestyle choices. Participants then stand on that row of papers. Ask the next question, and have participants lay down the next row of footprints in front — according to their choice for the next question — so that their footprints move toward the center of the circle.

3.    Continue asking questions until the circle is too tight to move forward further, and/or participants have run out of paper footprints.


If you’re concerned at all about participants feeling judged by their responses to the quiz, an alternative is to create a handful of roles, putting each role on a notecard. One role could be someone who makes very consumptive choices; another role could be someone whose choices have the least amount of impact. Other roles could be somewhere in between. Participants would put down footprints according to the roles outlined on their notecards. To involve every participant, you have each set of roles form groups and have all groups participate simultaneously.

You could then ask participants the questions again and have them write down what their responses would be for themselves, so that they can self-assess without needing to share their responses. Volunteers could offer their reactions to what they learned about themselves from the quiz.

4.    Note: Below are sample questions that you might ask; the numbers in parentheses represent the number of sheets of paper that should be placed in front of participants, based on their answer. Depending on the group, the questions can vary in number, depth, and difficulty. (Please note that the weights of the footprints are loosely based on actual statistics and are not designed to be completely accurate.)

Sample Questions

Which describes your house?
A. Multi-family dwelling (apartment/condo) (1)
B. Freestanding house on small lot (2)
C. Freestanding house with large lot covered with lawn (3)

How big is your house?
A. Small (0-800 sq ft) (2)
B. Medium (up to 2,000 sq ft) (4)
C. Large (bigger than 2,000 sq ft) (6)

Do you use lots of energy conservation strategies at your house (lights, water, etc)?
A. Yes (1)
B. No (2)

What’s your primary mode of transportation?
A. Walk/bicycle (2)
B. Bus/public transportation (4)
C. Car (6)

What kind of car does your family drive?
A. Compact (2)
B. Family-sized (4)
C. SUV (6)

How much trash does your family generate?
A. Not much (maybe one small bag a week) (1)
B. Some (1-30 gal. bag a week) (2)
C. Lots (more than 1-30 gal. bag a week) (3)

How often do you eat animal-based foods (meat, dairy, eggs, etc)?
A. Never (2)
B. Sometimes (4)
C. Always/Often (6)

How much fresh and locally grown (within 250 miles) food do you eat?
A. Most of what I eat (1)
B. About half (2)
C. Very little (3)

As you can imagine, the result is that everyone’s footprints begin overlapping and filling the space, and some participants run out of footprints. There are numerous possibilities for follow up and discussion on the impact our life choices have on others, and the possibilities for reducing our ecological footprint.

Download the complete activity.

Exploring the effects of our various “prints” – whether our ecological footprint, carbon footprint, water footprint, compassion footprint, or others – helps us to make choices and support systems that are more deeply aligned with our values.