Why did Disney have to go there? Dinosaurs and humans co-existing? The new Disney/Pixar movie entitled “The Good Dinosaur“ is based on the premise that a particular meteor does not collide with earth, the same meteor whose impact is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs. This lucky circumstance in the movie results in the dinosaurs surviving and eventually overlapping with the first prehistoric people. Unfortunately, most young children probably will not recognize that the premise of the movie is fictional, and a generation of kids will grow up believing something that is just plain wrong.
Parents, please help! Take your kids to this movie if they want to go. Apparently, it is lovely to look at visually and in parts, it will tug at your heartstrings. But afterward and over the next several weeks and months (yes months because of the constant exposure to toys, advertisements, etc.) have a conversation about when dinosaurs inhabited the earth and when the first of our human ancestors appeared and how these two events connect. The extinction of the dinosaurs gave rise to the age of mammals from which humans evolved. Had the dinosaurs not gone extinct, humans may never have had the opportunity to exist. This perhaps is the most scientifically offensive oversight of the premise of the movie.
At the very least, you can suggest that the movie is fun and make-believe, but humans (or at least our human ancestors) and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time.
As long as I am being a grumpy realist, you may also want to make sure that your child understands that dinosaurs did not talk. And, perhaps more importantly from a factual perspective, the early humans did not look anything like the cute little boy on the screen.
There are great activities exploring the life and times of prehistoric peoples. There is too much here for one post, so look forward to additional posts on our prehistoric human ancestors. For the time being, this post will focus on three essential questions about dinosaurs and prehistoric people, or when did they exist, where, and what did they look like?
When did the dinosaurs exist on earth?
Where did they live?
What happened to them that made them disappear?
What kinds of dinosaurs were there?
When did a human-like species (hominids) first appear on the earth?
Where did they live?
What did they look like?
Since they lived so long ago, how do we know anything about dinosaurs or early humans?
An important step in learning about dinosaurs is beginning to know what we think they looked like. Obviously, you cannot take a look at real dinosaurs, so pictures and toy figures will have to do. There are free resources online with pictures and information about various dinosaurs (http://www.teachingideas.co.uk/sites/default/files/dinosaurfactcards_0.pdf).
Toy figures are readily available, and collections with various kinds of dinosaurs can be purchased for less than $10. Larger figures are more expensive but have the advantage of more details, but the smaller figures should stimulate interest and learning.
Invite your child to describe what these animals look like. Maybe encourage her to focus on one type (there are 15 main types: http://dinosaurs.about.com/od/dinosaurbasics/ss/The-15-Main-Dinosaur-Types.htm#step1), or even one animal within a type (e.g., a triceratops) as there are so many different species and you do not want her to become frustrated.
For children who are more timid, maybe start with a gentle Brontosaurus (as opposed to T. Rex). Find pictures or realistic plastic figures with variations. Help your child find the descriptive language for horns, scales, nails, fins, wings, and legs, eyes, and mouths (can your child find these same bodily parts on themselves?) Do they all live on land? Can some fly? Do some swim?
For some kids, seeing videos of dinosaurs will be helpful in thinking about their differences or how they lived. There are tons of options online, but here is one source: http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/videos/dinosaurs.html.
Drawing pictures will encourage good observational skills.
Find images of early human species. Here is a great site: http://news.discovery.com/human/evolution/early-human-ancestors-faces.htm.
What do these early prehistoric people look like, or find language to describe these faces. (These may be a little creepy for some children. Take a look first and decide if your child will be okay with these and not feel uncomfortable)
Here’s another site with more information about how all of the early human species were connected and where we evolved from http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-family-tree. Look again at the faces and discuss what was changing about them as they evolved.
I think young children can look at these images and take what they will from them. It may not be a precise understanding of the evolution of humans. That understanding will itself need to evolve as your child is exposed to more and more information. Just plant the seed of an idea. That idea will grow on its own and its growth will be enhanced by exposure to factual information.
Next, how do we know what dinosaurs and early prehistoric people looked like? The evidence is in the fossil record. The fossil record, or where fossils are found also informs us about where dinosaurs and early hominids lived. Again, there are great activities related to fossils and this will be a separate post, but you can get started and determine if there is interest by finding books or online sources that our child can take a look at.
Find pictures of fossils from both dinosaurs and early humans that are the basis of forming this knowledge. Observe these pictures, finding the language to describe what is seen. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils.
Examine maps of where dinosaur bones, fossils are found around the globe. http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/backyard-dinosaurs/finding-fossils.cfm
Examine maps of where prehistoric people lived and their bones were found.
Here is a look at the timeline or earth’s formation, the appearance of the dinosaurs and then early humans. http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/prehistoric-world/prehistoric-time-line/
Compare dinosaurs with animals that live today. How are they similar or different (some are prey others are predators, some are herbivores others are carnivores or omnivores, some live in the ocean others live on land). Here are some more information cards to help with comparisons: http://www.teachingideas.co.uk/sites/default/files/dinosaursdidyouknow.pdf or
If you have sufficient information on a variety of dinosaurs, these can be compared to one another along the same categories just described. Remember that younger children will focus on more obvious characteristics such as size and color when comparing.
You can find caveman toy figures, but they are not really all that accurate. Still, they could be fun. Think about how these prehistoric people lived as compared to how we live today.
The time frame in which the dinosaurs existed relative to today can be difficult for younger children to get a grasp of given that we are talking millions of years (too many adults fail to understand this as well). To help, find books or other materials that have a time frame of the earth and when the dinosaurs existed relative to today. Here are some options online:
You can also find in books descriptions of the size of various species of dinosaurs, or their feet, or eggs. Find a number that interests your child and with a tape measure, demonstrate how tall that creature was, or how big its toes were. Mark the size with tape on the floor or wall if you are okay with this. For relative sizes, invite your child to lie down next to the tape measure or tape and assess his own size relative to the dinosaurs. Some of these animals were so big that you may have to do this exercise on a large lawn. Alternatively, find good comparisons. For example, a Tyrannosaurus Rex could easily look into a second story bedroom window!
Count different types of bones, dinosaurs, tracks, or whatever is available.
Take a poll and ask people what is their favorite dinosaur. You may need to help them out with cards or a chart with different types. Graph these responses.
Visit the library and find books on dinosaurs or early human species. There are many, many such books so take a look and find one that is informative and appears to be accurate.
Visit a natural history museum.
Visit a gem and mineral show in your area and find rocks with fossils.
Dress up as a paleontologist and do a pretend “dig” for fossils in a sandbox or backyard area. Bake some cookies, but prior to putting them in the oven, invite any toy dinosaurs to “walk” across the dough leaving fossil prints.
Play with dinosaurs, making up stories about their lives, but refrain from having humans “ride” on their backs.
Have a caveman-themed birthday party. Invite guests to dress up. Serve oversized ribs or turkey legs.
Alternatively, have a dinosaur themed party. http://www.coolest-kid-birthday-parties.com/dinosaur-birthday-party.html
For the child who is deeply curious about early human species, here is a site with links to very recent finds and news about research on early hominids. http://www.crystalinks.com/earlyhumans.html