Don't know bones about dinosaures? Just ask the nearest stegosaurus-loving kid

JURASSIC JUNIORS

June 06, 1993|By Max Weiss

Four-year-old Niles Stanley furrows his brow and climbs on top of a chair in his parents' living room. He faces a poster that is illustrated with small, life-like pictures of dinosaurs. Niles isn't tall enough to reach the poster on his own; that's why he needs the chair. He stretches a chubby finger and points to each dinosaur, one by one.

"That's corythosaurus and parasaurolophus," he says. "Here's ankylosaurus and protoceratops; triceratops and diplodicus; apatosaurus and supersaurus. . ."

As he identifies the creatures, his voice -- better suited for such phrases as "I like ice cream" -- is confident, firm, almost professorial. He goes on and on. There are about 70 pictures of dinosaurs. As Niles rattles off each one without hesitation, his parents stand by, grinning.

"The funny thing is, Niles can't even really read yet," says Linda Pierce, his mother.

Like Niles, kids everywhere are talking dinosaurs. Little kids. Children who have just started chewing their own food, who may or may not still wear diapers, casually dropping names like Deinonychus and Omeisaurus in conversation. And older kids -- the ripe old age of 7 and 8, that is -- they're building dinosaur models in their basements and counting the days and saving their pennies until the movie opens at a theater near them.

"Do you know how gory the movie is going to be?" Matt Stanley, Niles' father, asks quietly so that Niles can't hear. "Because, he's all excited about it. Obviously, we have to take him."

The movie in question is "Jurassic Park," set to open this Friday. Based on Michael Crichton's best-selling novel of the same name, it tells the story of an eccentric billionaire who plots to open a resort park crawling with live, genetically engineered dinosaurs. The Universal Pictures blockbuster-in-waiting was directed by Mr. Rediscover-the-Child-Within himself, Steven Spielberg. The book was ostensibly for adults, but, with a promotional push that rivals those for "Batman" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," the $60 million dollar film is geared toward kids in a big way.

As children's anticipation of the release builds, dinosaurs seem to be hotter than ever.

But why?

That's the tricky part. It's almost impossible not to wax philosophical when asked why kids go for dinosaurs. Suddenly, you start ascribing to the child all sorts of deep and poignant reasons for his or her fascination. Does the extinction of dinosaurs represent the child's own sense of fragility, of vulnerability in an adult world? Do children see the dinosaurs as tragic heroes, as mythical protectors? Do they yearn for days when the Earth was unpopulated -- huge, boundless, uncorrupted?

Let's go to the source.

"I just like 'em," says Sam Briskin, a 6-year-old kindergarten student at Calvert School in Baltimore.

"I like 'em 'cause I like 'em," echoes his classmate Catespy Taliaferro, also age 6.

"Want to know my favorite?" asks Emily Hoffman, also 6. "Tyrannosaurus rex!"

Jack Bryant, who is 8, and who has loved dinosaurs since he was 3, says, "When I was young, it was great to /ee these weird, big things that were, like, 3 million times the size of me."

Kids have always loved dinosaurs, says Joe Donnelly, director of marketing for the Dinosaur Society, a Massachusetts-based, non-profit organization dedicated to the study and promotion of dinosaurs.

"Every child who is born will go through some kind of dinosaur fascination," he says. The children's membership to the society is called the Dinosaur Club. Of the club's 30,000 members -- ranging in age from roughly 3 to 8 -- about half are girls.

"This surprises a lot of people," Mr. Donnelly says, chuckling. "They say, 'Wait a second. Dinosaurs aren't pink! Dinosaurs aren't cuddly!' But dinosaurs defy all stereotypes."

Kaitlyn Gentry, who is 8, explains:

"It's like puppies. Boys like puppies and girls like puppies!"

Makes sense.

Speculating about the reasons kids love dinosaurs -- and why they're able to negotiate those huge, multi-syllabic names -- is one of the Dinosaur Society's favorite pastimes.

"You can look at it this way," Mr. Donnelly says. "Dinosaurs were big, scary, mean beasts and they were dangerous and they were threatening. They were huge and kids are small. And they were powerful and kids are powerless. So kids identify with dinosaurs because they are all those things that create the fears and at the same time, they are non-threatening because they're extinct.

"Kids have a sense of control over them. If kids learn about them, if they know about them, if they can call them by name, they have control over these awesome, huge, frightening, mean creatures. That's why a 3-year-old can say protoceratops and an adult can't. A kid knows when he looks at an adult and says, 'That's a protoceratops,' that the adult rolls over and the kid is in control."

Asked if the dinosaur names are the biggest words that Niles knows, Matt Stanley says, "Heck, they're the biggest words that I know."

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