Dinosaurs for kids: A gateway for STEM learning
Paleontology is a great opportunity to teach kids about biology, evolution, and scientific thinking. Most young children are fascinated by dinosaurs, and studies suggest that curiosity boosts learning. When kids are intrigued -- when they have questions -- their brains are especially primed to learn the answers.
But being keen on dinosaurs isn't enough. It doesn't, by itself, lead kids to a deeper understanding of biology or science.
As Kathy Johnson and her colleagues found, young dinosaur experts may know a lot about specific dinosaurs, but their knowledge is usually highly specific and disconnected from larger, biological concepts (Johnson et al 2004). A perfect opportunity is being missed!
So we need to help children connect their natural interest in dinosaurs with big (and exciting) ideas. Here are my tips for making those connections. Some are based on the findings of specific studies. Others are based on my own experiences -- teaching evolutionary concepts, and sampling books about dinosaurs for kids.
I cite several free resources, as well as a few books. If you buy one of these books through the links provided, this website will receive a portion of your purchase.
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.
Paleontology is a fast-changing field, so we can't expect a book or video program to remain state-of-the-art for long. But we should look for media that reflect what contemporary paleontologists know, and if our kids see something that's outdated or wrong, we should tell them about it.
For instance, as paleontologist Stephen Brusatte has pointed out, the cinematic dinosaurs in Jurassic World don't match what scientists have learned from the fossil evidence.
"Far from being a scaly-skinned reptilian monster, Velociraptor would have been a fluffy, feathered poodle from hell."
Does this mean kids shouldn't watch movies like Jurassic World? Far from it! But we should seize the opportunity to (1) engage kids in conversations about the real science, and (2) introduce kids to the idea that not everything they see or read is supported by the evidence.
It's interesting to know how tall, long, and heavy extinct creatures were. But nobody I know ever became a scientist because he or she merely wanted to take measurements.
Lessons about dinosaurs should emphasize concepts. Consistent with research on early science education, here are a few concepts that even very young children can tackle:
Once these ideas are in place, children are ready to learn about other concepts, like
When are kids old enough to tackle these complex ideas? As we'll see, children as young as 5 years are capable of learning about natural selection. The trick is finding the right approach, like the one used in an experimentally-tested picture book (see tip #4 below).And a variety of stimulating resources are available for children of all ages. For example, Robert Bakker's excellent book, Raptor Pack (Step-into-Reading, Step 5), is aimed at children 7-9 years, and makes many connections to the science of animal behavior. It's also good material for discussing critical thinking, as I note below.
Dougal Dixon's National Geographic Kids Ultimate Dinopedia, Second Edition offers its share of statistics, but it also provides kids with brief chapters about topics like migration and herding.
In addition, cartoonist Hannah Bonner has written a delightful trio of paleontology books, now collected into a single volume called When Fish Got Feet, When Bugs Were Big, and When Dinos Dawned: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life on Earth (National Geographic Kids). Fans of Larry Gonnick will enjoy Bonner's work.
For more recommendations, see my nominations for best paleontology books and DVDs for kids.
A good museum exhibit can deliver things no book or film can:
Are museums effective? Research suggests that visits can be particularly valuable when families participate together, and parents ask their kids open-ended questions about what they see and infer (Jant et al 2014). So get kids talking about what they are thinking and wondering about.
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).
As geneticist Theodosius Dobhansky famously observed, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." And natural selection is the unifying theory of biology. Yet many people -- even highly educated people and school teachers -- misunderstand it.
In fact, researchers characterize natural selection "as one of the most widely misunderstood concepts in science" (Keleman et al 2014).
Part of the problem is that our intuitions lead us astray, and misconceptions get reinforced in school. Early in life, people get taught the wrong lessons, and once those misconceptions take root, it's very difficult to unlearn them (Keleman et al 2014).
This might lead you to think that natural selection is too complex an idea for young children to understand. But an experimental study by Deborah Keleman and her colleagues proves otherwise.
Keleman and her team created their own, 10-page picture book about a fictitious mammalian species, the "piloses." The book presents a careful, step-by-step account of natural selection in action.
First, we see piloses use their elephant-like trunks to catch insects to eat. Then an abrupt climate change drives the insects to live underground, in narrow tunnels.
Some piloses happen to have narrow trunks, so they can probe the tunnels and snatch up the insects. But other piloses -- who happen to have thicker trunks -- can't do this. So they fail to survive.
Keleman presented this story to children, and then questioned the kids about their understanding. They also tested children's abilities to generalize about what they learned -- applying it to new evolutionary scenarios.
Before they had heard the story, only 11% of the younger children studied (aged 5 and 6 years) showed any understanding of natural selection principles. Afterwards, 54% of them did.
Among older kids (7 and 8 years), the percentage who showed a grasp of natural selection ideas jumped from 42% to 91%.
Kids were able to infer that the thick-trunked pilosas died out, leaving only thin-trucked individuals behind. And they were able to apply their understanding to totally new scenarios (like a story that involved a species evolving larger beaks).
Finally, the lesson made a lasting impression. When the researchers tested these same kids 3 months later, they still showed an understanding of natural selection (Keleman et al 2014).
So it's possible for even 5-year-olds to learn the foundations of natural selection theory -- if you provide them with the right information. Keleman and her team have helped establish an approach that works.If you are interested, you can order How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses (Evolving Minds) from Amazon through this link.
Obviously, it's helpful when artwork is visually appealing, and kids need illustrations that are scientifically accurate. But other criteria are also important. Some books about dinosaurs for kids focus on "mug shots" -- each dinosaur depicted alone, against a neutral background.
That's not just boring. It steers children away from thinking about the ecology, evolution, and behavior of these animals. It interferes with their ability to think about form and function. So seek out illustrations that provide kids with reconstructions of dinosaurs in
ecological context. What did the environment look like? What creatures
shared this habitat?
Zhao Chuang does fantastic work, but doesn't seem to have his own website. Google his name in conjunction with the word dinosaur, and you won't be disappointed.
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 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
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:
How convincing are these clues? Let kids discuss, debate, and think about them.And for younger elementary school students, try Bob Bakker's previously mentioned Raptor Pack (Step-into-Reading, Step 5).
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.
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.
Birchard GF, Ruta M, and Deeming DC. 2013. Evolution of parental
incubation behaviour in dinosaurs cannot be inferred from clutch mass in
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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.
Jant EA, Haden CA, Uttal DH, Babcock E. 2014. Conversation and Object Manipulation Influence Children's Learning in a Museum. Child Dev. 85(5):2029-45.
Johnson KE, Scott P, Mervis CB. 2004. What are theories for? Concept use throughout the continuum of dinosaur expertise. J Exp Child Psychol. 87(3):171-200.
Kelemen D, Emmons NA, Seston Schillaci R, Ganea PA. 2014. Young children can be taught basic natural selection using a picture-storybook intervention. Psychol Sci. 25(4):893-902.
O'Leary MB. 2014. How curiosity changes the brain to enhance learning. Press release for Cell Press, accessed from Eurekalert 31 October 2017: https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-10/cp-hcc092514.php
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.
Tanaka K, Zelenitsky DK, Therrien F. 2015. Eggshell Porosity Provides Insight on Evolution of Nesting in Dinosaurs. PLoS One. 10(11):e0142829.
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 11/2/2017
images credits for "Paleontology and dinosaurs for kids":
title image of kids with T. Rex by Michael Coughlan / flickr
image of feathered velociraptor in profile by Salvatore Rabito / wikimedia commons
image of boy digging up fossils in Chicago Children's museum by Colleen Kelly / flickr