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...


  1. You've got to add Jurassic Poop to your booklist! Totally fun! I posted about it here:

    We've read plenty about evolution in most of our dinosaur books -- or at least the assumption of it is in the background. We're looking at a different take now in "The Dinosaur Mystery & The Bible." May not be what you're looking for, but it's certainly an interesting perspective!

  2. We got the most mileage out of adult books that we read and digest for the kids. I love Song of the Dodo. My husband has been reading Dawkins' The Ancestors' Tale. It is a dense book even for adults. But at dinner he's been sharing tidbits with us.

    He'll say, "which two of these three are most closely related: coelocanth, trout, us? It turns out that ray-finned fishes and lobe-finned fishes parted evolutionary ways 400 million years ago. We, like coelocanths, are lobe-finned fishes, while trout are ray-finned fishes.

    A fun activity is to pick a bone and then go through the natural history museum trying to find that bone in different skeletons. Handbones are neat because they look so different in bats, hippos, people, and yet... but thigh bones are also neat because an apatosaurus thigh bone and a mouse thigh bone are surprisingly similar. It turns the trip into a treasure hunt of sorts.

    This site has lesson plans for K-12, as well as other resources:

    For evolution toys, games and other resources, check out Charlie's (as in Charles Darwin) Play House

  3. I just found the book Life Story by Virginia Lee Burton - "The Story of Life on Our Earth from Its Beginning up to Now." I haven't read through the whole thing yet, but at first glance it looks pretty cool.

  4. SOOOOO happy I came across your blog. Please do keep it up. Love it!

  5. My three and four-year olds are loving this curriculum! Can't wait for the next installment, thank you for posting these.

  6. Charlie's Playhouse is a great resource for this topic! We have the giant evolution timeline playmat and my kids literally surround themselves with evolution history.