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  • Skribentens bildSuzanne Axelsson

The Story of... dinosaurs...

I still have memories of being interested in dinosaurs as a young child. I have certain memories of books and conversations I had about them. The idea of dinosaurs still thrills me, a topic/project/theme that allows for a mix of science, history, geography, imagination, stories, art, technology etc is just so incredibly exciting, especially when I see it is often a topic that motivates and interests so many young children too.

This means I am very fortunate to be able to bring dinosaurs up in one of my seminars for Stockholm University where I explore an interactive, transdisciplinary approach to museum visits where children can have real agency.

In this post I won't be going into the museum part of dinosaurs much, but more about the transdisciplinary approach to play and learning that can be experienced by exploring the dinosaur universe together with children.

There is research that suggests that children who are seriously into dinosaurs will make them smarter. When you break it down, it is actually not the dinosaurs that are making them smarter but that it is a conceptual interest that is. "Conceptual interests tend to promote “fact collecting” rather than the development of new skills or play behaviors." (quote from the research linked).

This means children fascinated by birds, or pokemons, cars etc and other topics that allow for categorisation, levels, evolution/levelling up etc will all fit the same bill as the dinosaurs when it comes to impacting learning and intelligence. The research points out that it tends to occur amongst highly verbal children and mostly boys. The need to nerd out and discover everything there is on the topic. Something I recognise in many boys I have met in my work, and also my son, but not only boys, I would have fitted that description as a child, preferring text books over storybooks and devouring them, as well as natural science programmes (I have to admit I am very jealous of the internet and the access to information that now provides the "nerdy" young children today, something my own children have benefitted from).

So engaging children in their learning. Getting them motivated. Using wonder and curiosity. This is the essential work of the educator.

So back to dinosaurs.

Here are some wonders about dinosaurs. Some of the activities and experiences I have engaged with children over the years, and a few links to maintain that curiosity - not just for the children... but for you as educators too... if you discover the wow in dinosaurs it is going to increase the engagement of the children too.

So a few did you know facts...

1. Did you know that we humans are closer in time to T-rex than T-rex is with a Stegosaurus? The Stegosaurus lived 150 million years ago, while T-Rex roamed the planet 66 million years ago!! You could create your own time line to see measure that out.

2. T-rex (I know its an important dinosaur for many children) actually could not roar... it could not make a sound like a mammal because it does not have a larynx. (tis could lead to en inquiry into how do we make sound). Check out this link to find out what a t-rex might have sounded like... (the actual noise comes in about 2.30, the first part of the film is background information)

3. Did you know that if a T-rex lost a tooth another one would grow back? You could research what other animals regrow teeth, or have many rows of teeth, or regrow parts of their body.

4. Did you know that T-rex teeth could be bigger than a banana? Could you or the children imagine having banana sized teeth? Or how about imagining what it would feel like to have longer teeth than your forearm? (Remember T-rex have very short arms)

5. What colour is a dinosaur? Did T-rex have feathers? (some scientists think they did). Here is a link to youtube film on colour. This link takes up feathers... but also has lots of other T-rex information - like speed, eye-sight etc... there is a little gruesome moment, but not something I find children cannot deal with (I recommend that you ALWAYS check films first, to ensure that they are suitable for the children in YOUR care).

6. Not all dinosaurs are dinosaurs... those in te oceans are not technically dinosaurs (like mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs) they are ocean reptiles. Then there are flying reptiles like pterodactyls, and reptiles like dimetrodon which actually is closer to humans than it is a dinosaur (brain explodes!!!). When I am talking about how dinosaurs move the dimetrodon is one of the examples I use, as its so recognisable with its big sail, the legs come out of the sides like a lizard and walks in a similar way, I encourage the children to test that out with their own bodies. I also get them to test out walking like a stegosaurus or brachiosaurus, stamping their feet heavily onto the ground like an elephant. Then finally we go up on to our toes like a T-rex (also like birds, but also horses and other hoofed animals) and run around with our arms pulled in short. By giving the children this information I later observe the children using it in their play... and we can all work out what dinosaur they are role-playing by the way they are moving. Knowledge expands their imagination and play... and through their play they can test out their knowledge and theories.

Enough of the wow... now onto some ideas I ave tried and tested.

I have used clay a lot... to create our own dinosaurs... both small and big, and also to make dinosaur stop motion films. I have also used clay to explore fossils... using dinosaur figures to create dinosaur foot prints, as well as shells to make prints in the clay. I either show the children photos of fossils or bring some of my own fossils in for the children to hold and examine.

Here in Stockholm we can often see fossils in floors, as the many stairs and underground stations have used stone that comes from fossil rich deposits, and so we get to see lots of belemnite fossils - which is the remains of a squid-like animal.

Another activity I have done with children is draw round a child on a massive piece of paper and discussed with the children what we would need to do to transform the shape into a dinosaur. This was a way not only to explore their own anatomy but also the anatomy of a dinosaur (most groups choose T-rex). They get to see similarities and differences. This is a project where all the children contribute towards the change... where we use pencils and try things out, make mistakes and try again until we get the shape of a dinosaur, which ten gets coloured in with paints after a discussion about what colour is a dinosaur, and what colour do we want our dinosaur (they can be quite different)

I have also seen children very much interested in paleontology. Then I have buried things in the sand box for the children to dig up. Or put dinosaur figures in plaster of paris that when it is dry the children could scrape out the dinosaurs with tools. I have also frozen in dinosaurs in big blocks of ice for the children to chip away at. The first time I did this was with a group of three year olds, and when they saw all the ice they completely forgot about the dinosaurs and were consumed with exploring the ice - they stroked, sat on it to make bottom prints, made melted footprints in it. I remember one of my colleagues at the time laughing and saying it was a complete failure... yet I look back and realise just how significant that moment was... it really taught me about how I need to prepare children and prepare myself... that if I want to offer children a play experience based on pretending to be paleontologists using ice, then I need to have offered children ice as a play experience several times first to be familiar enough with to creatively rework into role-play. Children need time to explore the materials, and I should never be in a hurry to achieve a "learning goal" because the children are already busy with their own learning goals. I let the children play with the ice... and offered several different ice-activities before re-freezing the dinosaurs to offer the opportunity to play paleontologists.

Another paleontologist role-play came in the form of building time machines... the children designed and then constructed their own time machines which they could climb into as small groups... when they were ready and they "programmed" their machine to go back 67 million years equipped with binoculars, note books etc and a room I had prepared with hidden dinosaur toys, the children again surprised me by abandoning being paleontologists and they all turned into dinosaurs themselves and played mummy, daddy and baby dinosaurs!!! And they made me the researcher that should observe them... EVERY group did this (we did it in three small groups... again we did not enforce the experience of being researcher, te important part was to excite their imaginations and explore through play the world of dinosaurs... which they did...)

I have used dinosaur toys on an overhead to create giant shadows... to help children think about size and compare that to themselves... and we also used chalks to draw big dinosaurs outside on the ground. I did have one child that freaked out that there must be a dinosaur on the other side of the wall when we were making shadows... so we moved the overhead to another room where the child was able to see both sides of the wall at the same time to be re-assured (and all the other children who had started to believe the child's well-argued theory that there must be a dinosaur on the other side of the wall) - luckily they all discovered that there was no dinosaur and they were able to sleep that night!!!

Books I have used, to bring story-telling into the dinosaur experience have included "Dinosaurs love Underpants" which is a silly story that has been very well liked, but has served well to get children thinking critically. For example why are cavemen and dinosaurs alive at the same time, is that fact? Could a T-rex actually put on a pair of underpants when their arms are so short? Did cave people actually wear underpants? What kind of clothing did they wear? Did early people look like that? Did all those dinosaurs actually live at the same time (in the book you see stegosaurus and T-rex fighting on te same page)?

I have also used dinosaur text books to look for facts, as well as looking online for information together with children. Digital tools are definitely a bonus for bringing dinosaurs alive and getting to explore and analyse them in new ways.

Film making has been another way to explore dinosaurs... creating stories, using facts, stops motion and green screen... as well as photo images using apps like "photomix", where the children can create images that make it look like they are riding dinosaurs or whatever their imaginations think up.

Creating books, designing and constructing own museums, and guiding other children or parents around them have been successful ways too. There are also lots of great digital tours of museums online too... where you can "visit" a museum and look at the dinosaurs. Admittedly a lot of the wow and wonder factor is lost, but in these covid-19 times we have to get creative... and not everyone lives close to a museum that has dinosaur remains or fossils so this is a real option to whet the appetite for museums. I mean why not compare different dinosaur exhibitions around the world... the children could rate them, which one do they think looks the best, or has the most interesting information or....?

Well, I think this post has given a few ideas of the possibilities of a dinosaur project... a great way to encourage conceptual interests...

Dinosaurs have been a way to explore fear, scary things, angry things, tings that fight, violence, death, and climate change in safe ways... these are all topics that are important for young children to explore and to gain an understanding of and to be able to deal with in a healthy way for their own well-being.

Below are a few images to illustrate what I have been writing about

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