Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Earliest People, Farming, and Domestication (Meet the Ancient World 3)

For young kids, even a very brief introduction to early humans can have a powerful effect. We started not by looking at books but by sitting together in a park and imagining life without: without electricity, machines, road, buildings, you name it. We talked at great length about the basic requirements for human survival, and how one might fashion tools, clothing, and shelter out of the materials at hand. This discussion captured their imagination so thoroughly that they were well primed to continue exploring the material in more detail with the resources below.


"Chapter 1: The Earliest People," in Susan Wise Bauer, The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 1: Ancient Times
A very accessible introduction to the nomadic life of early humans, and the advent of agriculture.

Concise, richly illustrated overviews of key topics like the discovery of fire, ice age hunting techniques, and cave art.

Jan Brett, The First Dog
The famed children's book author and illustrator Jan Brett imagines how the first wolf might have been tamed, through the tale of a young cave boy named Kip. My kids loved this one.

Jane Chisholm, Living in Prehistoric Times (Usborne First History)
OK, this 1982 book is dated, and a little hokey. But it seemed more accessible to the very young than much of what I could find at my local library. Prehistoric life is largely presented here through children's experiences, which holds an obvious appeal.

Aliki, Wild and Woolly Mammoths
This wonderful book from Aliki about prehistoric pachyderms describes in detail how early humans derived food, shelter, and clothing from woolly mammoths. The hunt scene is a little gory, but if your child isn't bothered by such things, this is a fascinating look at life in the Stone Age.


You don't need to teach a five-year-old actual flint-knapping: Just point them in the direction of some sticks and stones and you ought to get some pretty creative tool-making. This no-budget activity can keep your kids engaged for hours; decide for yourself whether just to leave them to their own devices or help them think about what tools might be required for different tasks.

Cave Painting
All you need is a big cardboard box and some magic markers to get your own little cave artists launched. I taped our box to the dining room table and covered it all with a big tablecloth to make the cave deeper and more mysterious, and gave the kids a fire (e.g., flashlight) to help them see.

For New Yorkers

If you live within striking distance of New York City, I highly recommend a field trip to the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. The mammoth-bone house alone is magical to see.

Are there great resources or activity ideas I missed? Please share in the comments section...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dinosaurs & Evolution (Meet the Ancient World 2)

Most kids are fascinated by dinosaurs, and dinosaur-themed books, activities, and toys abound. The point of introducing dinosaurs here, however, is to set the stage for a basic introduction to evolution, and this presents the parent of small children with a big problem: There are shockingly few good resources available to explain evolution to the younger set.

Memo to the children's book authors of the world: Please, please put your talents to work creating evolution-themed books for small kids!


This list contains a few books on dinosaurs that worked well for us, but really, you can just go to the relevant section in your local library and pick out a few good volumes. You won't, by the way, find the Magic Treehouse books on this or any of my reading lists, although many kids and parents love them and they do introduce a wide range of historical topics that are relevant here. This is a matter of personal taste: I don't like the writing style, and I can't stand the whole girl-led-by-her-heart-boy-led-by-his-brain shtick.

The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of World History
This book is a great resource to have around, mainly for its marvelously detailed illustrations, which can spark all kinds of discussions about whatever topic is at hand. Some of the text is too dry or technical for small children, but that doesn't matter -- pick and choose. Over the course of several sittings, the first 80 or so pages of this book can provide a basic overview of evolution on earth from the beginnings of life to the advent of Homo sapiens.
Aliki, Digging Up Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs Are Different, and My Visit to the Dinosaurs
Children's book author and illustrator Aliki has published several good introductory books on dinosaurs, all within the excellent "Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science" series.
Natalie Lunis, A T. Rex Named Sue: Sue Hendrickson's Huge Discovery
A fossil with a name and story attached to it holds extra appeal for small children. Book publishers know this: There's a whole mini-industry of books about the famous dinosaur named Sue. This is simply the one we found at our library and liked. Scholastic's biography of Sue Hendrickson, My Life As An Explorer, has an appealing angle for homeschoolers and unschoolers, as it portrays a fascinating and successful career made possible by Hendrickson's decision to drop out of high school. (Scholastic, not surprisingly, made sure to shoehorn in a pious passage about the importance of staying in school, to try to prevent kids from being inspired by Hendrickson's example.)
Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and Lucia Washburn, Dinosaur Babies
The title says it all.
Lisa Westberg Peters and Lauren Stringer, Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story
This was the closest I could find to an age-appropriate book about evolution. (Steven Jenkin's Life on Earth seemed too advanced, and I haven't yet tracked down a copy of Ellen Jackson's The Tree of Life -- let me know, readers, if you've found it worth buying.) It's written in a hushed, awed voice that I found too ponderous, but it does cover the basics in a kid-friendly way.

Prehistoric Planet: The Complete Dino Dynasty

Extra-sensitive kids might find this BBC series too scary; my kids (who were freaked out by an old tape we found at a garage sale of The Land Before Time) loved it. Go figure.

This one's a no-brainer; if you don't already have an array of little plastic dinosaurs in your house, they are easily and inexpensively acquired. Many different companies sell little dinosaur excavation kits, which my kids loved. Some children's and science museums have full-size faux dinosaur digs for kids -- ask around in your area.

Have other books or activities to recommend? Tips based on your own experience? Please share...