Learning With Dinosaurs

My son Trevor (age 5) has developed an obsession that hits many little boys between the ages of four and seven years of age: dinosaurs. Apatosaurus, brachiosaurus, coelophysis....these names are tossed around our house in the course of normal conversation. I'm not sure if he was first introduced to dinosaurs through TV or books or even Land Before Time videos but they are definitely now a part of our day-to-day life and I have learned far more about dinosaurs than I ever wanted to know! This interest has also shown me how to trust that learning occurs when a child is allowed to explore his or her passions without a parent disrupting the natural flow with explanations or "teaching."

Here are some examples of natural learning that have taken place during the dinosaur phase:

As Trevor approached the age of 5, I was beginning to be slightly concerned with my son's "odd" pencil grip and his utter lack of desire to write his letters. In my mind, I knew that he was still very young but I could not help trying to correct his pencil grip or demonstrating how to write "cat." My efforts were met with his justified refusal to write anything at all and I decided to let him move at his own pace (which is what I should have done in the first place.)

Months went by and he developed the interest in dinosaurs. He spent many hours poring over picture books and being an early reader, read them aloud to anyone who would listen. After a while, we would find him lying on the floor drawing pictures of the various species of dinosaurs. When he showed them to us, he would proudly point out each type, "This is a Tyrannosaurus rex, this is a stegosaurus, this is an archaeopteryx" and so on. One day, he brought me a picture he had drawn of a big, long-necked dinosaur and under the drawing was the scrawled word "brachiosaurus." His passion for dinosaurs had prompted him to write that long word better than all my efforts to get him to write "cat!"

Trevor has also learned a lot about science, of course, through this dinosaur phase. He's learned what an omnivore, an herbivore and a carnivore are and about predators, scavengers and prey. These concepts led to discussions about food chains and life in the wild.

We've also talked about the different theories of the dinosaurs' extinction and the evidence which make scientists support the different theories. We went to Fossil Park in Sylvania, Ohio and learned about fossils and then we read about the tar pits where dinosaurs would meet untimely deaths. This led to discussions about the geographical locations of various dinosaurs and we located them on a world map.

The questions about dinosaurs soon exceeded my meager knowledge of them and Trevor learned ways to find his own answers. I showed him how to search for information online, how to look up specific names in glossaries and indexes of books and how to check his own books out of the library. These skills will aid him in learning about any subject in which he will be interested in the future.

Just yesterday, he glanced up from one of his books and exclaimed, "Hey, Mom, this says that dimetrodons were 29 feet long! How long is that?" We got out a 12-inch ruler and marked off 29 feet across the house. "Wow, that's really long!" he said with his eyes wide. I think that was the first time he really realized how big some of those creatures were. He spent the rest of the afternoon mapping about the lengths of various other dinosaurs and then measured the lengths of items around the house, like books, crayons and his little sister's ponytail!

Watching my son follow his interests and learning about his world in the process has been an enlightening experience for me. I have a new confidence in children's curiosity and their drive to learn and explore. As I write, Trevor is developing a a new interest in sharks and I can only anticipate what paths we will follow and what we will learn. Who knows where it will take us?

Amy Kagey

See also Amy's account of Trevor's interest in movie monsters,
and some of Trevor's art from that time at Monster Mania

Other typical unschooling days