When my kids were little and before we moved to the ’burbs, the Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was our home away from home. We were lucky. We lived just nine blocks from the museum, and we went there when it was too rainy, too cold, too hot, or just too boring. Both of them learned to walk under the giant whale, and the dinosaurs were their BFFs.
That’s not an exaggeration. Every time we got to the dinosaur floor, my then-2-year-old son had to say hi to “Rexxie,” a giant fossilized T. Rex. After his greeting, he’d make his way through the exhibits to see all of his favorites—the apatosaurus across the way, the stegosaurus a few rooms down, the pteranodons and the prehistoric fish and gators.
He eventually transitioned out of his dinosaur phase, but now my 4-year-old daughter is smack in the middle of one. (That’s also making my 7-year-old dabble again.) If you’ve got a kid who’s dino-obsessed, you’re probably as enamored by the whole thing as I was—and still am. There’s just something insanely adorable about seeing kids who can barely pronounce their own names accurately rattling off the most complicated dinosaur names imaginable. And I don’t know about you, but I feel like patting myself on the back whenever this dinosaur obsession rears its head: After all, even though dinosaurs are interesting and fun, what’s really happening is that we’re cultivating a love of learning and science without any effort.
But there’s more to it than just adorableness. A child’s dinosaur obsession actually helps with their cognitive and overall mental development, as well as their self-esteem. Here’s why it’s so good for them—and how you can help cultivate it.
Why it’s good to be obsessed
With all of the animals in the world, why are kids so obsessed with dinosaurs? No one truly knows, but we can take a guess: They’re impossibly big and completely fascinating, but they’re safe. Well, they wouldn’t be if they were right there next to you, but of course, they’re extinct, so they give pint-size paleontologists a good, old-fashioned vicarious thrill.
But that’s just where the dinosaur obsession starts. It snowballs, experts suggest, because preschoolers are at that great age for imaginative play and their imaginations can run wild. Plus, they can flex their mental muscles in a way that makes them feel powerful. They not only memorize those crazy dinosaur names, but they can also cite the weirdest facts about their prehistoric friends. This mastery makes them feel smart and powerful—and that gives them confidence and develops their self-esteem as they impress you (and anyone who will listen) with their wealth of dino knowledge.
And then there’s the “intense interest.” That’s the thing that child-development experts say is the biggest benefit when it comes to this whole dinosaur obsession. Why? It helps with cognitive development, increasing their attention span, improving the way they process information, and literally making them smarter.
So, now that you know just how good a dino obsession can be, what can you do to help it along? We’re so glad you asked!
The coolest places to see dinosaurs around the country
It’s time for a field trip! No matter where you are in the country, you can find an amazing option somewhat nearby.
Museums and more
I may be biased since I live here and all, but the New York City area is pretty spectacular in terms of dinosaur viewing. For starters, there’s my beloved Museum of Natural History. Aside from the amazing display of dinosaur fossils, there’s the hands-on Discovery Room, a somewhat secret spot that holds all sorts of fun things for kids to do, including a fossil dig and a big make-your-own-dinosaur model.
Then there’s Field Station: Dinosaurs, which is actually 10 minutes from Manhattan, in nearby Leonia, New Jersey. (There’s another one in Kansas, just FYI.) It’s about as close to Jurassic Park as you’ll get, since it features a bevy of animatronic dinosaurs—or, as my kids call them, robot dinosaurs, which makes me laugh every time they say it.
And that’s just the beginning. Check out Watson Adventures’ list of dino attractions in the Tri-State area, like at Connecticut’s Dino State Park and Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. Watson Adventures also offers super fun and unusual scavenger hunts at AMNH and the Peabody Museum, as well as at a ton of other places in the area and throughout the country, for kids over 7 and adults. Instead of finding random objects, you’ll be challenged to find the answers to clever questions about dinosaurs and other museum specimens. (And FYI, they offer loads of amazing non-dino scavenger hunts, too.)
Other great dinosaur exhibits can be found in museums across the country—in Chicago, Los Angeles, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C., to name a few.
Dinosaur tracks in the wild
Museums are great, but if you can walk in the actual footsteps of dinosaurs, that is pretty mind-blowing—and not just for your preschooler with the dinosaur obsession. MNN.com lists some of the best places to do just that, and they include…
- Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas
- Clayton Lake State Park in New Mexico
- Dinosaur Footprints Wilderness Reservation in Massachusetts
- Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado
And if you’re really going all-in, you can even join some paleontologists on a real dig, according to LifeHacker.com. While some of the sites only allow older children, a few do allow the little ones. They include…
- The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, which allows kids 4 and up
- Fossil Butte National Monument in Kemmerer, Wyoming, which allows kids of all ages
The best dinosaur gifts for little paleontologists
Whether you’re looking for a great birthday present or just something to keep your kids busy on a random day, check out this list for kids of all ages and dino interests. I’d say it’s dino-mite, but then even I’d judge myself. (And yes, I still got to say it.)
If you think you can’t go wrong with a scientific set from National Geographic, you’d be right. Your little scientists will chip away at the gypsum block with a chisel to excavate actual fossils, including sliced ammonite, monosaur teeth, trilobites, gastropods, clams, urchins and coral. You won’t believe how patient your kids will be on their quest—or how cute they’ll look as they gently brush away the debris or look at their dig site with a magnifying glass. Warning: This one is messy but well worth it. Just make sure to do this outside or on a newspaper- or tarp-lined table (or floor).
This is the perfect STEM activity to keep your dino devotee engaged and busy for an extended period of time. The mission: Unearth individual pieces of the mini T. rex replica embedded in it. Once you find everything, it’s time to construct your fantastic beast. While this project is recommended for ages 8 and up, I have done it with my 4-year-old, and she absolutely loved it. Granted, it was much more hands-on for me than when I did it with my 7-year-old, but they both got a ton out of it, albeit in different ways.
If your kid is anything like mine, her “babies” have to participate in any and all activities. That’s where this nine-piece Smithsonian paleontologist set for a favorite 18-inch doll comes in. Highlights include a khaki hat, satchel, tablet with a GPS, a paleontologist dig block, and a mallet, pick and brush. Of course, your little one may also want to look the part, and for that, there’s this costume.
If you thought that putting your child to bed was fraught with tension, try subbing that child with a T. rex, Spinosaurus or other toothy carnivore from way back when. In this amazing series, which also features books on going to school and celebrating a birthday, kids learn proper manners from the unlikeliest of peers.
As the kids get older, the books get more involved. Older kids can build upon their dinosaur knowledge and practice their reading skills with this book that’s part of the award-winning DK encyclopedias for children.
If you haven’t watched this PBS favorite with your toddler, you’re missing out. The gist: A pteranodon family adopts a baby T. rex, and they go on time-traveling adventures on a Dinosaur Train to various periods of prehistoric history. It’s adorable and educational and please don’t hate me when you can’t get the theme song out of your head. Anyway, these interactive toys are based on the show’s characters, and they are actually talk to one another when they’re nearby. It’s kind of trippy and silly, and of course kids love it. This is Buddy, the adopted T. rex who doesn’t seem interested in eating his pescatarian family.
And this is Tiny, one of the three pteranodon siblings. (The other two are Shiny and Don.) You can also get Mrs. Pteranodon, as well as a host of other smaller players on the show, like Tank the Triceratops, Arnie the Argentinosaurus and King Cryolophosaurus.
Sometimes going old-school is the best. This set may not have any fancy bells and whistles, but its 20 mini dinosaurs and assorted pieces to build a prehistoric habitat on the mat will keep your kids occupied with hours of imaginative play.
How could I possibly write an article about dinosaurs without mentioning Jurassic Park? (The movie my oldest son was born to, mind you. Yeah, that’s a long story.) While the movie is definitely too frightening for young audiences, you can get the sanitized version with a LEGO set, like this 150-piece one for ages 4 and up. For younger kids, check out Duplo’s 22-piece Jurassic World Gentle Giants Petting Zoo. Older kids can get in on the action with the Jurassic World Stygimoloch Breakout set for ages 6–12.
Enjoy the dinosaur obsession while it lasts!
When kids are in the throes of an obsession, you never think it will end. But for most kids, it will, just like so many other stages of childhood. Strangely, you often won’t even really notice when it does, which ends up being sort of bittersweet. But…this dinosaur obsession can make a big resurgence in a big way if you have another child or whenever you visit a cool museum or do another dinosaur-related activity. And you’ll end up enjoying it all as much as your kids.
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