hands-on history/experiential science: dinosaurs

Out of the blue, the kids decided that dinosaurs sounded like a fun topic of study, so I dutifully planned to incorporate a dino study in our next six-week block.  (We have taken to block scheduling in six-week increments, and it’s glorious!)  I had a little more trouble with the “hands-on” and “experiential” portion of this study, but I did my best!

Background: Fossils and Paleontology


Our finished product left us with both an artifact and its imprint.

To begin our study of dinosaurs, I wanted to provide a little background information on fossils and paleontology.  I began our study with these three activities, which I did on three separate days.  The book Fossils Tell of Long Ago (Aliki) provided a snuggly way to reinforce the hands-on learning.

  1. Discovering Fossils – This first activity requires a bit of advance preparation.  Select a small object to be your “fossil” and wrap it inside a small lump of air-dry clay.  I chose a coin, since I figured it wouldn’t break and cause dismay if my kids accidentally chipped away at their clay with too much vigor.  Make sure your air-dry clay lump is not too big or it will take an eternity to dry and/or crack open as it dries.  Mine was fine within 12 hours, but I kept it small.  (I’ve also seen this activity done by coating objects with petroleum jelly and using plaster of Paris to bury them, but I already had clay on-hand.)  When you’re ready for your activity, provide your kids with a few different tools to uncover their fossil.  We used small screwdrivers for the grunt work and paintbrushes for the final dusting.
  2. Fossil Imprints – Often what paleontologists find is what ISN’T there.  We happen to have some bathroom tiles with impressions of various leaves stamped into them, which we used to discuss fossil imprints.  We also have a local park at which the planners thought they would cleverly imprint various animal tracks in the wet cement (except that at times you can see the marks of the tool they used to roll on those tracks…).  Both these and some PlayDoh fun allowed us to see what sorts of imprints plants and animals might have left behind.


    This small paleontologist tries to identify a fossil to assemble his skeleton.

  3. Assembling Fossils – Well, your little paleontologists have discovered some fossils–now what?  Using some little dino skeleton kits from the dollar store, we pieced together a couple dino skeletons.  We discovered that even with instructions this is pretty hard work because many of the pieces look alike.  It’s hard to imagine how real paleontologists can take the few bits they find and determine what pieces they are and what type of dino they belonged to!

Dino Basics

  1. Introductory Reading – Once we had some background knowledge, it was time to introduce some basic information about dinosaurs.  We read both the picture book Magic School Bus: In the Time of the Dinosaurs (Cole) and Magic School Bus (Chapter Book #9): Dinosaur Detectives, but much of the information is redundant so you could easily choose either one or the other.


    We posted our charts and some of the kids’ creations on a wall.

  2. Dino Periods: A Quick Research Chart – Did you know that the “time of the dinosaurs” was actually divided into three distinct periods?  Not all the dinos you’ve seen on T-shirts were alive at the same time, and the world was a vastly different place from the beginning to the end of the era.  We checked out the book When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic (Bonner) to give us a glimpse of the vast amount of time we were studying by taking on the topic of dinosaurs.  While some of this probably went right over their heads, it had a LOT of information on the Triassic Period presented in humorous text and delightful cartoons.
    If we had been doing a more in-depth study, I likely would have studied each period on its own.  As it was, I knew we were just planning a brief overview.  So our next step was to compare the periods and make generalizations about their climate and vegetation, as well as noting which types of dinosaurs lived in each period.  I handed the kids a few books with each period marked and had them read and look for facts about each era, which I then copied onto a chart.  They were surprisingly enthusiastic about this project and were delighted to admire the results of their “research”.  (See our resource list below for book ideas.)
  3. Overview: Oral Reading and Notetaking – Next we began a more thorough overview of the actual dinosaurs.  For this, I chose to have the kids read the Magic Treehouse Research Guide #1: Dinosaurs (Osborne).  They took turns reading chapters aloud over the course of several days, and as we made our way through the book, I suggested that each of them take notes on things they found interesting.  Goobie chose to illustrate her observations, while Peatie preferred to make long lists of facts.
    • Dino Eggsperiment – In the course of our reading, we stumbled across a few interesting tidbits about dinosaur eggs.  For one, they were probably a little spongy like reptile eggs, so they wouldn’t break when they were laid.  (Some eggs have been found in a row, so some dinosaurs may have laid eggs as they walked!)  We used a chicken egg compared to a playground ball to visualize this difference and the reason behind it.  (What would happen if you dropped each from a foot or three off the ground?  Try it!  Which one would a baby dinosaur need to be inside to survive?)
    • Dino Eggsperiment, Part 2 – Additionally, paleontologists believe that the biggest dinosaur eggs would have been no larger than about 10 inches, or roughly football-sized.  Why?  Because the bigger the egg, the thicker the shell would need to be to support it, and they figure a baby dino couldn’t have broken out of an egg larger than that.  We used clay (PlayDoh would also work) to help kids visualize the thickness vs. size comparison.  You can make a small cup shape with very thin sides, but if you try to make a bigger cup with thin sides, it will collapse.  Have them use toy dinos to try to break through a thin-sided cup and a thick-sided cup.  What’s the difference?

Digging Deeper

  1. Organizing Information: Dino Cards – Now that we had a basic overview of the Age of Dinosaurs and some knowledge of dinosaurs themselves, it was time to dig in a little more.  Using our various books, we took a couple days to search for more information on the dinosaurs we had taken notes about during our reading–and discovered a few other interesting ones along the way.  We made a notecard for each dinosaur, listing the period in which it lived, the family it was part of, its size, what it ate, and any other interesting tidbits we learned.
  2. Herbivores vs. Carnivores: A Comparison Chart – It was time for a new chart.  This time, we compared meat-eating dinosaurs with plant-eating dinosaurs, using our various books to check what we thought we knew about each variety before writing the facts on our chart.
  3. Dino Reports – Each of the kids chose their favorite dinosaur to write a brief report on.  Using the facts we’d listed on our cards, they crafted a paragraph about their dinosaur of choice.  I loved how each kid’s paragraph showed which bits of information they valued and really incorporated their voice into the telling of the facts.  Having already collected facts together, the kids merely had to select which ones to include, choose a logical order, and turn the bullet points on the card into full sentences.  Actually, this was rather like the IEW (the Institute for Excellence in Writing) method.
  4. Dino Measuring – Finally, we took a handful of our dinosaur cards and set about measuring the relative sizes of the dinosaurs.  We happen to have a nearly straight shot from one end of our house to the other, so we were able to measure from the front door and place labeled painter’s tape to mark the lengths of the various dinos.  (Though we couldn’t fit a Diplodocus!)  Then we hung the matching dino card on the wall beside the tape mark.

A measurement marker is visible on the floor, while our display wall marks the end of the dino measurement walk.

The Big Finish: Dino Tour

For our grand finale, we invited Daddy and Grandma and Grandpa to see what we’d learned about dinosaurs.  (This was the kids’ idea!)  The kids started at the front door and showed them our dinosaur measurements and dino fact cards (making sure everyone noticed the most interesting facts), pointed out our comparison charts and a few assorted other creations hung on the wall, and topped off the tour by reading their reports.  They were so proud of themselves, and the grown-ups got to share a little of that joy and learn a little something new.


  • Fossils Tell of Long Ago (Aliki) – A good early-elementary picture book on what fossils are and what we can learn from them.
  • Magic School Bus: In the Time of the Dinosaurs, Magic School Bus (Chapter Book #9): Dinosaur Detectives – The facts in these are, of course, more like accessories to the story, but they are a nice, gentle way of introducing some basics.
  • When Dinos Dawned, Mammals Got Munched, and Pterosaurs Took Flight: A Cartoon Prehistory of Life in the Triassic (Bonner)- This included way more info than we could really process in the single day we gave it, but it’s a brilliant mix of humor and information that was fun to read.
  • Magic Treehouse Research Guide #1: Dinosaurs (Osborne)
  • ‘Love’s ancient copy of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles (A Giant Golden Book by Watson) – While this had a LOT of text and not many pictures (though it certainly made sure to have realistic gore), we did skim some of the surprisingly-conversational information contained in it.
  • The Children’s Dinosaur Encyclopedia (New Burlington Books, Consultant Prof. Michael J. Benton) – This one had dinos organized by family with facts about the family and then details about each dinosaur.  It was pretty cool!
  • Dinosaur (DK: Eye Wonder) – This is a great book for early elementary because the text is large, the reading level is pretty simple, and there’s not too much text per page.
  • Walking with Dinosaurs: A Natural History (Haines) – This one was more texty than we needed, but the photo-realistic images of dinosaurs in their likely habitats were really cool to look through!
  • The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History (p. 42-59) – I was surprised to find several pages devoted to dinos in here, and the information was actually pretty nicely compact and easy to comprehend.

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