Dino-mania

Prehistoric period captures imaginations of youth

Tanya Middleton is the proud mother of a paleontologist.

Her son didn't go to college. He's not quite old enough to start school. But last year, after watching his growing interest in the prehistoric beasts, Tanya took Oliver to visit Dinosaur National Monument.

"That's where he became a paleontologist," Tanya says. "And he will tell you he is a paleontologist."

Her son Oliver Godfrey knows the subject matter well. And he educates those who confuse dinosaur nomenclature.

Like many children, his favorite dinosaur is tyrannosaurus rex. Sometimes people confuse it with the similar-looking allosaurus. Both stand upright and have two short, stubby arms. Both have ferocious-looking skulls filled with long, sharp teeth.

But Oliver, 4, knows that the allosaurus has three claws, while the T-Rex has only two.

"If it has more than two claws and somebody tries to tell him it's a tyrannosaurus, he'll correct them," Tanya said.

Children have a natural affinity for dinosaurs. And the world has taken notice. There's an abundance of dinosaur toys and stuffed animals. Educational materials feature dinosaur counting exercises and dinosaur mazes. Grocery stores sell dinosaur-shaped fruit snacks. Movies like "The Land Before Time" helped popularize the ancient reptiles.

Even more adult titles like Jurassic Park are popular with children.

Leona Hemmerich is the manager of the Colorado Welcome Center at Dinosaur. Hemmerich encounters visitors who came to the town just because their kids were so interested in dinosaurs.

She said she's always amazed at the 3-year-olds who can pronounce dinosaur names even their parents have trouble with.

Unfortunately, many of the visitors are deterred when they find out that most of the dinosaur bones are on the Utah side of the monument.

"Well over two-thirds of the people come looking for the quarry and looking to see the dinosaur bones because the kids want to see them," Hemmerich said.

When she worked for the chamber of commerce, Hemmerich said the town received letters penned by schoolchildren from across the country who were curious about the town's namesake.

She recalls one girl from the South who had made up her own story about why the dinosaurs had come there.

Shops in town sell dinosaur souvenirs, but Hemmerich thinks there's always room for more. The fascination children hold for dinosaurs is thriving, Hemmerich said.

"Kids are the driving (tourism) force in many respects because of that," Hemmerich said.

In the children's room at the Moffat County Library, the books in section 567 are well-thumbed copies of dinosaur books that show evidence of repairs.

Animals in general are popular at the library, but dinosaurs rank near the top, said Sherry Sampson, manager of the library's Craig branch.

"Sometimes we emphasize story hours on dinosaurs because the children really like those," Sampson said.

Jean Lackner also works at the library. She remembers when her children went through the dinosaur phase. She got to go through it a second time with her grandchildren.

When the foundation was being dug for her new house, the grandchildren found some small bones and pretended to be paleontologists, piecing together the fragments they found in the dirt.

At Sunrise Kids LLC Preschool and Childcare on Thursday, the children flocked to the play area when Alice Barber brought out the basket of dinosaur toys.

"This one's called a tranosaurus," said 3-year-old Monica Vigil, holding up a replica.

Tyrel Todd, 3, searched the basket and found what he was looking for.

"A pterodactyl," he said when he found the small plastic toy.

Kindergartners come to the daycare after their short school day. They learned about dinosaurs from Elizabeth Beaulieu.

Beaulieu spent a whole month teaching the children about dinosaurs. She's a lifelong educator and a retired principal from Hawaii. Judging from her decades of experience in education, Beaulieu said dinosaurs have always been popular.

"Even in my beginning teaching third grade, they all wanted a dinosaur unit," Beaulieu said.

The children all seem to know three basic things about dinosaurs.

They lived in the past, they were very large, and we know so because we've found their bones. The children like to include wooly mammoths in the "dinosaur" category, probably because they know the same three things about mammoths.

The children like to talk about the size of the creatures.

"They were bigger than this whole preschool," said Kort Hathhorn, one of Beaulieu's pupils.

To help the children grasp the size of the extinct creatures, Beaulieu measured out the length of the T-Rex on the sidewalk in front of the school.

And she explained the height in terms of the surrounding trees.

"I think that's one thing that fascinates the kids is how big the dinosaurs were," Beaulieu said.

And the fascination carries over to other activities, wherever the dinosaur icons go.

Restaurants often serve dinosaur-shaped entrees.

Middleton said she takes Oliver to Bad To The Bone BBQ and Grille, where dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets are on the menu.

The nuggets are a big seller among the young clientele, according to Jauneth Calim, a waitress at Bad To The Bone.

She sees children who get in trouble for playing with the dino nuggets, marching them across the tables, making growling noises and pitting the nuggets against one another in dinosaur wars.

Kids' meals at Village Inn come with dinosaur French fries.

"When we go out to eat, there are always dinosaur nuggets or dinosaur fries," Calim said. "They really are everywhere."

As the mother of a 2-year-old who loves dinosaurs, Calim appreciates the menu offerings.

"If it's something the kids are into, I've found they eat it a lot better," Calim said. "If they came out with dino-shaped vegetables, it would probably make everyone happy."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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