I love dinosaurs—and not just because huge creatures roaming the earth is one of God’s coolest ideas ever. Or because their variety and strangeness is endlessly fascinating. Or because the story of their discovery is filled with colorful people and tremendous drama. I love dinosaurs because they are a nearly perfect occasion for learning to love learning.
Think about it. Dinosaurs can motivate small children to master very big words. Three and four-year olds have no difficulty at all with carnivore or herbivore or parasaurolophus or pachycephalosaurus. They relish the challenge of specific knowledge. They love being an expert. And then, before you know it, they start to think about etymology: “Did you know that “Rex” means “King?” And “–saurus means “lizard” and there are lots of “sauruses” to learn about, but there’s also velociraptor the “swift thief” and oviraptor the “egg thief” and did you ever wonder why they’re called raptors the same way eagles and hawks are?”
I love dinosaurs because they open the door to lots of other fields: animal behavior, biology, zoology, taxonomy, genetics, geology, fossilization, history, biography, climate change, and technical drawing. With dinosaurs you can talk about how animals’ teeth are related to their diet. You can talk about how some dinosaurs lived as solitary creatures and others organized into groups. You can look at the layers of earth you see at a nearby construction site and think about the age of the planet. You can even talk about astronomy when you get to the part about giant meteors crashing into the Yucatan. Dinosaurs lead children to ask, “How do we know that?” and the answer “Because of what we’ve learned about other things and applied to this field of inquiry” brings home the all-important notion that things are connected. If you want to fully understand something, you’re going to need to learn about a lot of other things too. If all you know is Victorian poetry, then you don’t really know Victorian poetry.
I love dinosaurs because our understanding of them is changing all the time. You can read stories about new discoveries and new theories almost every month. When you study dinosaurs you learn that science is not a static thing. What you “know” today may be modified, refined, or discarded in time, and a good scientist is not afraid to have his or her ideas challenged and tested.
And I love dinosaurs because they remind us that we are not the only creatures to walk the earth. Dinosaurs can keep us humble. If something that big and powerful was once here and is now gone, then why should we think we’re always going to be here? Why should we think that nothing’s going to change? Why should we take this life and this planet for granted?