Dinosaurs capture kids at natural-history museums

TAKING THE KIDS

July 30, 1995|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Here's a new summer boredom buster: Send the children outside and tell them to start watching the sky for flying dinosaurs. When they roll their eyes, insist the flying dinosaurs will be along any minute. And they will -- just as soon as some birds fly over. Birds evolved from some small meat-eating dinosaurs.

Just ask the folks at the American Museum of Natural History's wonderful new Dinosaur Halls. That tidbit of knowledge and many others are here for the taking at New York's newest family crowd-pleaser: The Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs and the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs were just unveiled after a $10 million-plus renovation.

Dusty dinosaur exhibits have given way to light-filled areas that invite visitors to stare a dinosaur in the eye or find out more about them, using the computers stationed nearby. More specimens are on view here than anywhere else in the world, museum officials say, noting that nearly 85 percent are real fossils, not reproductions.

"Certainly 'Jurassic Park' has helped, but there's always been a huge interest in dinosaurs," says Melissa Posen, associate program director for the halls. "Kids love the idea that we're not making this all up."

"Kids like dinosaurs because they're so big," says Dave Whitman, a spokesman for Utah's Dinosaur National Monument. Even during summer vacation, Mr. Whitman adds, dinosaurs are never a hard sell.

Parents can encourage that interest easily by checking locally at natural-history museums to see if dino workshops are planned. Children can trade dino talk on the Internet or ask their librarian to suggest a book. Pick up a few plastic ones or skeleton models they can put together.

Learning about dinosaurs and their world millions of years ago is fun. But dinosaurs also can spark an interest in science that lasts a lifetime. The trick, of course, is to keep the children wanting to learn more. For those driving between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, the Museum of the Rockies offers an ideal stop.

The museum's exhibits tell the story of paleontologist Jack Horner's 1979 discovery of North America's first dinosaur eggs at what now is called Egg Mountain, near the Montana town of Choteau, about 200 miles northwest of the museum.

Baby dinosaur skeletons, nests and thousands of other bones subsequently were found, demonstrating for the first time how some dinosaurs cared for their young.

Those with children older than 10 might want to consider the day-long workshops that enable families to help dig for dino bones. "We find bones every day," says the Museum of the Rockies' acting education director, Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer.

Next summer, she added, a new 7,000-square-foot exhibit hall will open at the museum, showcasing its 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. (Call the Museum of the Rockies at [406] 994-2251. The field programs fill up six months ahead.)

Meanwhile, it seems all of New York is off to greet the dinos at the American Museum of Natural History. To beat the crowds, greet the dinos when the museum opens at 10 a.m. or wait until a Friday or Saturday evening, when the museum stays open until 8:45 p.m. (Call [212] 769-5100 for information.)

For nearly 100 years, paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History have been recognized for their efforts digging up dinosaur bones around the world. The museum has the largest collection of dinosaur fossils anywhere.

That scholarship is evident in the new light-swept halls that showcase the latest scientific research on these creatures (including the relationship between dinosaurs and birds) and rare fossils. Check out one of the first dinosaur nests ever discovered, for example, or a new mount for the 86-foot-long apatosaurus (formerly known as brontosaurus) that shows his long tail lifted off the ground.

No one will want to miss the Tyrannosaurus rex, newly mounted to reflect what scientists now believe, that he walked with his backbone horizontal to the ground, his tail in the air.

Children will love the fossils they can touch -- a real triceratops horn, a stegosaurus plate and dinosaur egg among them. They'll also like the labels that are identified by pictures of children and placed close to the ground. They answer the questions children are likely to ask.

Here's one: Can we tell the difference between male and female dinosaurs? We can't. We don't even know their true colors or why they all died when they did.

One thing's for sure: Despite their tiny brains, dinos couldn't have been as dumb as people think they were. How else could they have lasted 140 million years?

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