Paleontology and dinosaurs for kids:
Educational resources and teaching tips for the science-minded
© 2009 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Dinosaurs for kids: Getting kids hooked on biology and science
I haven’t met a kid who wasn’t intrigued by extinct animals.
Paleontology is a great opportunity to teach kids about biology, evolution, and scientific thinking.
Unfortunately, many of the educational materials I’ve seen don’t do justice to these possibilities.
Here are my criteria for good educational resources about
paleontology and extinct animals. I can find very little research on the
subject, so I’ve based my criteria on my own experiences--with
children, with teaching evolutionary biology, and with sampling over 100
books on paleontology and dinosaurs for kids.
Along with this list, I name a few books and websites that I
like. Most of these are aimed at big kids or teenagers. For a more
reviews, check out my nominations for the best books and DVDs about paleontology and dinosaurs for kids.
And if you have young children, you might like these
preschool dinosaur activities.
How to teach paleontology to kids:
What good lessons, books, and other media should do
Emphasize concepts, not statistics.
It’s interesting to know how tall, long, and heavy extinct
creatures were. But nobody I know ever became a scientist because he
wanted to measure things. Lessons about should emphasize concepts. Here
are a few that even very young children can tackle:
• Anti-predator adaptations (like body size, body armor, living in groups)
• Ecological niches--e.g., dietary specializations and the adaptations that go with them
• Food chain; predators and prey
• How paleontologists sometimes infer behavior from fossils (e.g., large eyes imply nocturnality)
• Parental care (see “Inspire critical thinking" below)
• Reconstructing ancient environments by studying fossil plants
Looking for examples?
Compared to most books about dinosaurs for kids, Dougal Dixon’s Amazing Dinosaurs: More feathers, more claws, big horns, wide jaws! (2007) is remarkably concept-driven. So is Robert Bakker's excellent book, Raptor Pack (Step-into-Reading, Step 5).
In addition, cartoonist Hannah Bonner has written some delightful books about paleontology, including When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon PreHistory of Life in the Triassic. Fans of Larry Gonick will be pleased with Bonner's work.
For more recommendations, see my nominations
for best paleontology books and DVDs for kids.
Compare extinct animals to their living counterparts
Natural selection is all about the ecological niche. When different
species occupy similar niches, they encounter similar problems.
Sometimes, they evolve similar solutions, too. By pointing out
similarities between a pterosaur and a pelican, we can help kids better
understand the pterosaur. We can also encourage kids to think about the
broader evolutionary implications. Are some kids too young for this
approach? I doubt it. Experiments suggest that kids as young as 4 can
understand analogies (Goswami and Brown 1989).
The 2007 edition of Dougal Dixon’s Dinosaurs
does an admirable job of drawing explicit parallels between living and
extinct creatures. Overall, though, I prefer Dixon’s other book, Amazing Dinosaurs (mentioned above) because it seems more comprehensive.
Stay on topic
Books about dinosaurs for kids should be about dinosaurs. Not
Victorian fossil hunters or the history of paleontology. There is
nothing wrong with these subjects. But they are off-topic. When kids are
curious about extinct animals, they want to learn about extinct
Offer age-appropriate explanations—and steer away from topics that are too complex
If you’re going to mention continental drift or natural selection,
you need to follow through with an age-appropriate explanation. For some
age groups, this might mean avoiding a topic altogether. There are
plenty of Ph.D.s who don’t really “get" natural selection theory.
What’s a preschooler to make of it?
One book that does a particularly good job of presenting complex ideas in simple terms is Evolving Planet: Four Billion Years of Life on Earth. This book is based on an exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum that outlines the history of life on earth. Authors Erica Kelly and Richard Kissel developed the exhibit, and they have a knack for presenting the “big picture" in engaging, easily-digested, bite-sized pieces.
The book is heavily illustrated, mostly by Karen Carr. I’m a fan of Carr’s work. But many of the illustrations in Evolving Planet
are digital paintings, a medium that I dislike. Still, there is a lot
of visually exciting material here, and I gather that many kids like the
look of digital paintings. The publisher recommends the book for kids
Present kids with good illustrations.
Yes, some artists are better than others. But in addition to general
quality, I’ve got some specific criteria. Some books about dinosaurs for
kids offer only “mug shots," with each dinosaur depicted alone against a
neutral background. I want to see reconstructions of the creatures in
ecological context. What did the environment look like? What creatures
shared this habitat?
To see some beautiful reconstructions of extinct creatures in context, check out the BBC's excellent prehistory pages and the websites of paleo-illustrators Karen Carr and Raúl Martín.
Let kids see the evidence for themselves
Why do we know that some dinosaurs had feathers?
Or think that ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young?
Some fossils give us clues about the external appearance,
behavior, and environment of extinct creatures. For instance, in in the
photo on the left, you can see for yourself that this Sinosauropteryx (a
Chinese dinosaur from the Cretaceous) was covered with downy feathers
(rather like the modern day Kiwi bird).
Rather than just tell kids about these fossils, we should show them (in photographs or in museums).
I look for books that include photographs of
• fossilized impressions of skin or feathers
• fossil footprints
• fossil nests
• fossil leaves
Paleontology is a fast-changing field, so we can’t expect book or
television program to remain “state-of-the-art" for long. But I’ve seen
mistakes that reflect laziness, like portrayals of dinosaurs scampering
Inspire critical thinking
Paleontology presents an opportunity to teach kids about critical thinking and inductive reasoning.
For example, consider the issue of parental care. The first discovered remains of Oviraptor were
discovered over a clutch of eggs. Some people jumped to the conclusion
that the animal was an egg predator. But I’m sure your child can think
of an alternative explanation. What sorts of evidence can help us test
this rival hypothesis?
Later finds—of adult Oviraptors sitting over nests in a chicken-like, roosting position-- suggest that Oviraptor was
indeed a good parent, not an egg thief (e.g., Clark et al 1999). And
here is other evidence to support the idea that some dinosaurs were good
• An embryo of a protosauropod species lacked well-formed teeth,
suggesting that it would have required parental care after hatching
(Reisz et al 2005).
• A trackway laid down in the mud of an ancient lake shore shows
the footprints of an adult theropod dinosaur and perhaps as many as 10
juveniles of the same species. The tracks all point in the same
direction, suggesting that they were walking together (Clark et al
• Nests of Oviraptor, Citipati, and Troodon (the dinosaur with
the largest brain for its body size) have been found in association with
roosting adults. These nests contained many more eggs than we’d expect
one female to lay. Among living birds, species associated with such
large clutches show a specific mating pattern: Males mate with multiple
females, then roost the eggs themselves. We can't assume this trend
applies to dinosaurs (Birchard et al 2013), but the bird example
suggests the possibility. Were the fossil adults daddy dinosaurs? Some
researchers think the fossils look male (Varricchio et al 2008).
How convincing are these clues? Let kids discuss, debate, and think about them.
And for younger elementary school students, check out the previously mentioned Raptor Pack (Step into Reading)
by charismatic paleontologist Bob Bakker. In this engaging book, Bakker
walks kids through real-life hypothesis testing that he's conducted in
the field -- and makes a good case that some predatory dinosaurs shared
meals with their young.
For another child's book that encourages critical thinking, see Sneed B. Collard’s Reign of the Sea Dragons (Charlesbridge 2008). I review it
Other recommended resources about paleontology or dinosaurs for kids
Click here for
reviews of what I consider the best children's dinosaur and paleontology resources in print today.
For a review of resources about Mesozoic sea monsters, click
And for activities available online, check out these websites:
The University of California Museum of Paleontology
offers an excellent collection of online exhibits, including activities
about paleontology and dinosaurs for kids. For instance, the site
classroom activities about adaptation and extinction for 2nd and 3rd graders.
The BBC has a delightful collection of
pictures, activities, games and articles.
References: Paleontology and dinosaurs for kids
Birchard GF, Ruta M, and Deeming DC. 2013. Evolution of parental
incubation behaviour in dinosaurs cannot be inferred from clutch mass in
birds. Biol Lett. 9(4):20130036.
Clark JM, Norell MA, and Chiappe LM. 1999. An oviraptorid
skeleton from the Late Cretaceous of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, preserved
in an avianlike brooding position over an oviraptorid nest. American
Museum Novitates 3265. New York: American Museum of Natural History.
Clark NDL, Ross DA, and Booth P. 2005. Dinosaur Tracks from the
Kilmaluag Formation (Bathonian, Middle Jurassic) of Score Bay, Isle of
Skye, Scotland, UK Ichnos 12(2): 93 – 104.
Goswami U and Brown A. 1989. Melting chocolate and melting
snowmen: Analogical reasoning and causal relations. Cognition 35: 69-95.
Reisz RR, Scott D, Sues H-D, Evans DC, and Raath, MA 2005.
"Embryos of an Early Jurassic prosauropod dinosaur and their
evolutionary significance". Science 309: 761–764.
Varricchio DJ, Moore JR, Erickson GM, Norell MA, Jackson FD, and
Borkowski JJ. 2008. Avian Paternal Care Had Dinosaur Origin Science
322(5909): 1826 – 1828.
Content of "Paleontology and dinosaurs for kids" last modified 7/13