Teacher Feature: Kindergarten Class Explores Paleontology

Today we’re featuring kindergarten teachers Cathryn Prudencio and Sharon Jensen. The class has been exploring dinosaurs, and I joined them for a lesson at the National Museum of Natural History that answered the question, “How do dinosaurs get to the museum?”  Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Cathryn and Sharon. 

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When the kindergarten class needs to pick a new topic to study, the children always start out by answering the question “What would you like to learn about?” in their journals. Then the students draw what they are interested in. We also explore different ideas for topics throughout the year, and when it’s time for a new topic we brainstorm ideas as a group. We vote to narrow the choices down to the top three or four, and then vote again for our final topic. This way we make sure that the students are truly involved in choosing what they will be learning about, and they are satisfied that it was a decision made fairly. This is how we ended up doing a unit on dinosaurs as our last unit before the kindergartners graduated.

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The class went to The Last American Dinosaurs exhibit; a temporary exhibit while the new Hall of Fossils: Deep Time was being renovated. The group’s first stop was at a wall of photographs from a 2013 trip to North Dakota made by a team of paleontologists from the museum. They stopped and carefully looked at the photographs, making observations about what the paleontologists were wearing and why. Some of their observations included: hats to keep them cool, pants to protect their legs from sun burn and the risk of getting cut from sharp tools, and gloves to both protect their hands and protect the fossils from the oils on their hands.

The objective of this lesson was to deepen the understanding of what a paleontologist does on a dig, and what tools and procedures are used. We used the pictures hanging up in the exhibit to support what we were talking about, and to help the children think about what was needed for the dig. We also used the objects on display to talk about the materials needed and how they were used, supporting this with objects passed around for the children to see and hold. Doing this, we not only reinforced information from a previous lesson, but we also prepared the children for their own miniature dig in the museum.

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Next, they did more careful looking at exhibit cases display tools that paleontologists use. The children excitedly called out what they saw, and Cathryn read the label for them to glean more information.

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After careful looking and making observations, the class sat down to talk more about what paleontologists do, and how they get a dinosaur to the museum and on display. They named tools that paleontologists need and Cathryn brought out a version of each tool they named. Next, brought out a Lego model of a dinosaur hall that might be in a museum. She explained that to find out how the dinosaurs get to the museum, they must go back in time to when the paleontologists began their dig.

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The children all donned goggles to protect their eyes, and got to work on a dig. One child used a chisel and hammer to scrap off the “hard top layer”.

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Next, the children got to work using the tools to uncover what was buried beneath the ground. They were excited as the found what the believed to be dinosaur skeletons. Sharon asked how they could tell what kind of dinosaur it was, and the children responded that they should look at the heads and neck.

Something that surprised us during the lesson was how the children really took turns and then worked together on the “dig site” in the museum space. Sometimes they get so excited about an activity that it can be hard for them to be patient and wait their turn.

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To learn what happens next, Sharon read the book How the Dinosaur Got to the Museum by Jessie Hartland.  The story follows the journey of a Diplodocus, discovered in Utah in 1923 and its journey to the National Museum of Natural History. The children were impressed to see the numerous people involved in getting the Diplodocus from the ground to the exhibit hall. They also were shocked to hear that it took seven years for the Diplodocus bones to be assembled in the gallery.

The most ineffective part of our lesson was most likely the read aloud. Even though it explained the process of getting the dinosaur bones from the discovery part to the display in the museum, and all the people involved in the process, it was rather long and made our lesson longer. By the time we finished the story, the children had been sitting for some time. However, this was okay because we  already talked about the process so much and the people involved, that it was a way to reinforce what we were teaching.  Even though the read aloud was very long, we were still surprised at how well they stayed engaged and listening.

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The children noticed that some of the bones were hard to tell exactly what they were. Sharon reminded the class that it took seven years to put the Diplodocus together, and while it might not take seven years to put the puzzle together, it might take them longer than the time they had in the museum. The group was reassured that they could continue work back in the classroom.

In the beginning, when putting the puzzle together, the children were super excited, but that soon faded when they were trying to figure out which piece went where. Again this was okay, because they did try and got pretty far with it. Eventually they just lost interest.

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That afternoon the children continued to work together to put the skeleton together. They also used Legos and plastic dinosaurs to create their own dinosaur exhibit hall.

Later in the classroom, we left the section of the museum for the children to play with. On their own they created several additional sections of the museum using Legos, dinosaurs and some blocks. It took up the entire table and throughout the week there were more additions. Written labels the children made to identify objects, for example, and more “tourists” made from Legos were added to see the “exhibit.” It was awesome!


After exploring dinosaurs it was time for our kindergartners to graduate! For more dinosaur ideas, visit our dinosaur Pinterest board.