A visit to Drumheller’s world-renowned Royal Tyrrell Museum may hold the answer

skeletonMark Sissons

“Did you know that Giganotosaurus was bigger than T-Rex? He could have kicked his butt in a fight!” 

Like many kids his age, my seven-year-old stepson, Nayam, knows an oversized amount about the lizard kings and queens that ruled the earth before an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula about sixty-six million years ago and led to their extinction. He has memorized boatloads of arcane Mesozoic Era facts, can rapidly recite tongue twisters like Therizinosaurus, Dilophosaurus and Micropachycephalosaurus, and devotes hours each day to drawing intricate recreations of his favourite dinosaurs. 

From Barnie, the friendly T-Rex that educates kids with songs, to Blue, the ferocious Velociraptor that saves the day in the Jurassic World movies, dinosaurs have always captivated imaginative kids like Nayam. So what is it about these long-extinct creatures that make them so captivating for our little ones?

The Royal Tyrrell Museum has one of the biggest displays of dinosaur skeletons in the world.Mark Sissons

According to a 2008 study published in the journal Cognitive Development, some children start to develop an obsession with dinosaurs around the age of four, driven by a natural curiosity and instinct for discovery. Learning everything they can about dinosaurs also gives them specialized knowledge their parents often don’t possess, and fulfills their desire to answer their own questions without asking their parents for help.

“I think it's the fact that dinosaurs are almost mythical, otherworldly creatures that really plays into kids’ imaginations,” says Daniel Gregorash, an educator at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, the world-renowned museum and research facility in Drumheller, Alberta. For the past decade, Gregorash has overseen the museum’s school and distance learning programs. “Kids are into making up creatures, and you have these already existing creatures like T-Rex that are even better because they actually lived. Paleontology and dinosaurs, in particular, present a nearly bottomless well of fantastical creatures to explore.”

Royal Tyrrell MuseumRoyal Tyrrell Museum

Some of the most iconic among them—Tyrannosaurus rex, Albertosaurus and Triceratops—are on display at the Royal Tyrrell Museum, situated amid some of the richest deposits of dinosaur fossils in the world in Alberta’s Badlands. The only museum in Canada devoted exclusively to the science of paleontology, the Royal Tyrrell has been named among the world’s top dinosaur museums by National Geographic, CNN and Smithsonian Magazine.

For a budding paleontologist like Nayam, a long-anticipated visit here is a dino lover’s dream come true. “Maybe I could go to school in Drumheller and become a paleontologist here so I could be surrounded by dinosaur geeks like me,” he says as we pass through the ‘Dinosaur Capital of the World’ en route to the Royal Tyrrell’s 12,500-square-metre facility.

Courses like fossil casting give students hands-on understanding of the work of paleontologists.Mark Sissons

Once there, we immerse ourselves in the mortal remains of dinosaurs, some as big as school buses, in the museum’s impressive exhibit halls. Organized by geologic eras, displays feature specimens and dioramas from each period, plus over thirty mounted dinosaur skeletons. Looking up at T-Rex’s massive jaw towering above him, a spellbound Nayam turns to me and says, “this place is mind-blowing!”

How big is the dinoMark Sissons

Educational programming and hands-on exploration also form an essential part of the Royal Tyrrell’s appeal to kids. After exploring the main exhibits, Nayam and I sign up for a fossil casting class, where participants create a replica of a museum fossil to take home, complete with details about the fossil's age and where it was found. An hour later, he’s holding a plaster mould of a megalodon tooth, eager to share this souvenir from his excellent palaeontological adventure during next week’s school show and tell. He’s also keen to sign up for Badlands Science Camp, where kids get to sleep in a prospector’s tent, search for fossils and discover the prehistoric past in the heart of Alberta’s Badlands dinosaur country.

Courses like fossil casting give students hands-on understanding of the work of paleontologists.Mark Sissons

It’s been said that paleontology is a gateway into other sciences. Systematic observation, measurement, experimentation and hypotheses are the building blocks of scientific thinking that an early fascination with dinosaurs can nurture in a child, according to Daniel Gregorash. “Obviously, not every kid who says they want to grow up to become a paleontologist is going to become one, but getting them to approach life through the lens of science is so helpful for them. It’s intrinsic learning for its own sake, rather than simply as a means to a professional end.”

Nayam and I are definitely in the moment as we hike along the nearby interpretive Badlands trails. We bring along a toy Giganotosaurus from the museum gift shop, photographing it striking fearsome poses among the rocks. Here, in what was once a shallow inland sea teeming with Cretaceous period marine and reptilian life, Nayam is in his happy place.

Nayam’s toy giganotosaurus terrorizing the trails of Midland Provincial ParkMark Sissons

“Did you know that the Stegosaurus was already extinct by the time the Tyrannosaurus existed?” he asks me as we traverse this otherworldly landscape where his prehistoric heroes once roamed.

I didn’t. But I’m glad that you do, Nayam, because your love of dinosaurs will serve you well, no matter what you choose to become.


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