A unit study is simply a theme for home education. It can be in addition to regular text book work - or almost all activities can be based around a single theme. Living in Belfast, I have been unable to find an affordable packaged curriculum - which means I make my own. We do use some text books - but I also like to let the children explore their own favourite topics - which in our house often means dinosaurs. Here are some of our ideas for Dinosaur activities:
We were quite lucky that the Ulster Museum recently hosted a visiting dinosaur exhibit - but even without this, there are always some fossils on display and a replica skeleton. A museum visit is a great way start for a dinosaur unit study. While you are there I would strongly suggest asking staff for information on local fossil hunting.
There are several prepackaged fossil kits for children - some of which are quite reasonable - but nothing can compare to finding your own. Of course you aren't likely to dig up a T-Rex in your back garden - but if you consult local books and experts as to where to look you will be very likely to find some type of fossil with enough effort. We've only found two a small aquatic life form and a plant, and this was after days of searching, but we do learn by our failures as well. We are beginning to learn what types of rocks to look in. And once you've found something - identifying it is loads of fun as well. But because it will take so long to build up a collection like this - we have added to it with a packaged set from Amazon, and a couple of bits from our museum gift shop.
Make your own fossils:
After reading several books on imprint fossils, my son still couldn't quite grasp the idea. Taking some model dinosaurs and skeletons and pressing them into clay immediately showed him how it works. We could see the scaly skin patterns in the clay, or the imprint of bones, footprints etc.... We used air drying clay and painted it afterwards - making some nice decorations to hang up, but you can also press imprints into sand and fill with plaster, or even melted wax - a good way to get rid of broken crayons and left over candle wax.
Digging for dinos:
We set up a large plastic box with a bag of play sand and buried a number of model dinosaurs. I was really surprised by the amount of time the children spent happily digging these out. To make it more exciting - buy a dinosaur skeleton model- or two and bury the pieces. Trying to figure out which bone goes to which dinosaur can be trying - but can give some insight into a real paleontologists work.
We cut pictures from magazines or images printed from the computer and lay them face up on clear fablon or contact paper. Then we carefully cut them out again, resulting in a very durable picture. We actually painted a solid colour border on the wall of our play room/ school room, but you can easily take a bargain strip of wall paper border and paint the back different colours for different periods and eras. Then tape or blue tack this down the length of a hall, across a large wall, or even around a room. Finally, the children tape or blue tack the various dinosaurs and other creatures onto the correct time period.
We also make our own books using simple page protectors and 3 ring binders, or report portfolios. Children can classify animals by type of animal - such as flying reptile, Permian reptile, dinosaur etc... by era, by diet, or habitat. We did a project where we tried to predict a dinosaurs diet using clues such as placement of eyes, teeth, claws, and brain size. We also used modern grocery store fliers to cut out pictures of foods for carnivores, herbivores and omnivores, and added pictures of dinosaurs according to their diets.
Get out the tape measure and chalk and mark off the length of various species of dinosaurs out on the street or footpath. This gives children a much better concept of size than a book. Try to find out the height of power poles or local buildings so you can compare the taller dinosaurs in height to those as well.
Take the estimated sizes of many dinosaurs and make charts and maths problems - how much larger was Spinosaurus compared to T Rex? Which was longer Apatosaurus or Brachiosaurus?
Fact or Fiction?
Choose some dinosaur movies - Jurassic Park being the most obvious. How many mistakes can you find? For instance Velociraptor is much larger in the films - perhaps to make it more frightening. Can you think of a dinosaur that would have been better in Velociraptors place? ( A Troodon is closer to the size of the film's most frightening creatures - and also the smartest dinosaur). How many of the dinosaurs actually lived in the Jurassic Period? We also noted that Pterosaurs would certainly not be confined to an island - they were meant to have migrated for incredible distances. There are many other mistakes in the film - such as the idea of Tyrannosaurus Rex not being able to see you if held still. This is a creature that hunts by smell. You'll likely find many errors we missed, but it doesn't matter if you find more or less, the idea is to think critically and approach the question using scientific information.
What do you think of cloning ? Wouldn't they need an egg? the right size for each species? Any other major mistakes in the cloning idea? These films may not me good science, but they are a wonderful way to encourage scientific discussion and thought.
Reading and Writing:
I will not list any books here as I have listed so many in the two preceding blogs, but of course a good dinosaur unit study would involve reading as many books on the subject as possible. Children can then write their own articles about their favourite dinosaurs for their own home made books, or even fictional stories involving dinosaurs. It cold be a about a species previously thought extinct being rediscovered - or a the use of cloning like Jurassic Park. Perhaps time travel could provide the basis for a good dinosaur story - or imagine what if the dinosaurs had never become extinct. Could Troodon have evolved into a species like humans - would humans have evolved at all. Or if you don't believe in evolution at all - your child could write about a scenario expressing your own beliefs. Did humans and dinosaurs live at the same time - it could make a great story. The ideas for creative writing are endless.
Grow your own prehistoric pet:
Triops date back from before the time of the dinosaurs. Amazon sells several kits to hatch one out - but they fail to mention this creature can not survive cold. Either raise these in the warmer months or buy a small tank and heater. Keep in mind the life span is only 3 months - so no matter how well your child cares for this pet - it will die. The good side is, if you keep a few and dry out the sand - you may be able to hatch new ones the next year.
Many plants from prehistoric times have survived, including ferns and buttercups. Grow a small prehistoric garden.
Arts and Crafts:
This will have to wait for my next blog as I have too many craft ideas to fit into this one.