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 animals.

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 the Evolving Planet (2008). 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 ages 9-12.

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

Avoid inaccuracies.

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 through grass.

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 parents:

• 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 2005).

• 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 here.

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 here. 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 includes these 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