Dinosaur Extinction, Early Childhood Style: A Story about Dinosaurs Jumpstarts the Creation of a Community of Science Learners in a Preschool Classroom

By Murray, Mary; Valentine-Anand, Lesley | Science and Children, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Dinosaur Extinction, Early Childhood Style: A Story about Dinosaurs Jumpstarts the Creation of a Community of Science Learners in a Preschool Classroom


Murray, Mary, Valentine-Anand, Lesley, Science and Children


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Do dinosaurs have bellybuttons? This intriguing question launched a journey into inquiry science that captivated our class of four-year-olds for eight months. As students enjoyed dinosaur books, examined dinosaur artifacts, drew pictures, watched videos, and generally immersed themselves in all things dinosaur, we built a culture of learning in our classroom that helped these young students develop science-process skills, such as observation, measurement, and communication, and taught us--their teachers--about how to help young children learn to find the answers to their own questions and love science. We share our inspiring learning adventure here.

A Community Begins

It all began as we read the story Tyrone the Horrible (Wilhelm 1992). We read this book every year, as it tells the story of how a very small dinosaur perseveres and tries many strategies to overcome a big Tyrannosaurus rex who is bullying him. During this reading, one student asked a question about one of the illustrations. "Where are their ears?" Soon students were commenting: "I don't see their bellybuttons either. Dinosaurs don't have ears. Dinosaurs are extinct." These questions generated a big discussion, and we knew by the knowledge and interest of the children that there was potential to take this investigation further.

When the story was over, we asked them the questions, "What does extinct mean?" and "Why do you think the dinosaurs became extinct?" Several children shared their ideas about possible reasons for dinosaurs' extinction: "A long time ago the sky was falling down and it crushed them; I think the T-rex ate all the dinosaurs, and then there wasn't any food left so he died; My mother told me a very big rock fell and landed on the dinosaurs; I think a cloud fell down and the dinosaurs ran away but it crushed them." This last theory was debated among the students, "how can the cloud hurt them if it's just made of gas?" The response was "I think maybe the gas was really hot."

The children's enthusiasm sparked our interest, and soon we were wondering, "How do we push children's thinking further without giving them the "right" answer?" We felt that the answer was to establish a classroom climate in which students could explore their ideas, communicate their ideas with others, and revise their ideas. In this way, students could discover that teachers are not the only source of information and that they themselves can be contributors to knowledge.

To do this, we would focus on the use of open-ended questioning and provide students with a rich collection of varied materials and resources, judiciously introduced, so that students had time and freedom to explore without adult intervention. We found that when the students were given ample time to explore the resources without the teachers giving them too much information, it gave them the opportunity to formulate their own ideas. In this way, we hoped to establish a classroom environment in which children felt comfortable sharing and revising ideas.

Learning at our Pace

To begin, we made available resources, such as books and a View-Master with pictures of dinosaurs in their habitat. The Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K-12 (see Internet Resources) includes many titles about dinosaurs, including recent dinosaur research. Because the children were familiar with the concept of a habitat (from a previous field trip to a conservation area), we decided to offer them the opportunity to create a model of a dinosaur habitat in an old sandbox. They brainstormed a list of things that dinosaurs would need to survive. We were impressed with the understanding about living things that their ideas revealed. They suggested we collect plants for the herbivores to eat, water, soil, twigs, and rocks (barricades to protect the plant-eaters from the carnivores). …

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