Some of you who have become Kidspace regulars may have noticed that the most common item out on the Nature Exchange tables on any given day are the toy dinosaurs. This is not because Kidspace educators have decided that these are the coolest things in the room. In fact, most days the “animals” table starts out covered in an assortment of bugs, shells, furs or other fun things. What we have found over the years is that children and their parents gravitate to the dinosaurs, pushing aside the shells and rocks to make room for the epic battle between T-Rex and Mr. Triceratops. This trend can’t be explained away by the fact that they are the only plastic toys in the Nature Exchange. Consistently there is a high number of children pulling out the dinosaur puzzles instead of any of the other puzzles or choosing to do their research projects on dinosaurs rather than birds, rocks or sea creatures. This has long piqued my curiosity as I did not grow up with a fascination for dinosaurs. Yet many adults I talk to tell me that they have fond childhood memories such as a giant inflatable stegosaurus, or decorating their rooms with dinosaur drawings or watching The Land Before Time. I started to do some research and found that there are many people asking this same question: why are we so fascinated by dinosaurs?
Some people I have talked to say it is the mystery. What were they really like? Where did they go? What was the world like when they ruled? While science has put to death most of western society’s mythology of dragons, sasquatches and unicorns, dinosaurs ride the fence between clear scientific facts and the fantasy of our imaginations which fill in all the gaps in our knowledge. With only fossils to give us clues to how they lived, we find ourselves with such a great opportunity for imaginative play and storytelling. Indeed there is a vast variety of books and movies for all ages telling stories of dinosaurs and what it would be like to live with them. Dinotopia and Jurassic Park are great examples of this. Dinosaurs also have the capacity to intrigue a variety of ages for different reasons. A Tyranosaurus Rex can serve as the cute main character for a children’s show like Dinosaur Train or books like How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? It can also be the ultimate bad guy in Disney's Dinosaur or several versions of King Kong. Or it can be an object of fascination and sometimes ridicule for adults when we think of how this giant predator/scavenger managed to survive with such tiny arms.
The passion for the mystery of dinosaurs is only enhanced every time new discoveries are made about them. We have moved from a long tradition of representing dinosaurs dragging their tails along the ground to the present-day lever stance that allows two legged dinosaurs like the veloceraptor to run more efficiently (making them more deadly). Now, with the discovery that dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than to reptiles and the fact that many dinosaurs sported feathers gives us a whole new picture to play with in our minds and in the designs of our toys. The beauty, however, is that they are extinct so we will never truly know what they were like. Others would argue that dinosaurs are fascinating because they are so other-worldly. The diversity of their body shapes and sizes is unlike anything we have today. Some, like the giant sauropods were likely longer and more massive than the largest animal today: the blue whale. Unlike the blue whale these animals had to support their massive bodies on land, fighting the full force of gravity with four giant legs. Some of the duckbilled dinosaurs had hollowed out crests and horns that are thought to have allowed them to make noises much like a foghorn.
What about the fact that dinosaur fossils could be anywhere? Fossils have been found on every continent of the world and sometimes in the most unexpected places. Hunting for fossils by the side of the red jeep at Kidspace and getting to hold real fossils and learn where they came from with an educator can be so much more exciting than a ride at an amusement park. It is the ultimate treasure hunt in which every treasure only leads to more mystery and a greater desire to know more, especially when all you find is a tiny part of an animal.
Whatever the reason for our love of dinosaurs, it never ceases to amaze me that a small child who is barely stringing sentences together will come up to a Kidspace toy dinosaur and call it by name, triceratops or dimetrodon. Furthermore, while dinosaur names roll off the tongues of 3 year olds and 7 year olds spend an hour perfecting their drawings of a diplodocus, neither can name various types of amphibians, ferns, rocks or stars… I am not saying this is bad. At Kidspace we want to encourage all passions for learning. I simply marvel at the food for fascination that this one group of life forms provides to children and adults alike. Perhaps dinosaurs should serve as a testament to the power of mystery in learning. Imagine if we cultivated a greater space for imaginative exploration in the teaching environment. At Kidspace, one of the ways we try to move towards this style of teaching is through “inquiry-based learning” where children are encouraged to find the answers to their own questions and curiosity through exploration and investigation. Visit me in the Nature Exchange so we can investigate together!
Blog Entry by:
Louise Leborgne, Nature Specialist, has been with Kidspace Children's Museum since 2012. She is in charge of caring for all of our live animals as well as managing the Nature Exchange, developing curriculum for daily educational programs, and large events like Bug Fair and the Grand Butterfly Release.