My daughter Silia,3, was very specific about her Birthday party. It couldn’t be just a dinosaur-themed party. She wanted her favorite Stegosaurus party. I had to find balloons, cookies and a nice favor bag for her friends.
For the record, a Stegosaurus is a genus of herbivorous thyreophoran dinosaur. Its name comes from from Greek stegi (στέγη) which means roof and sauros which means lizard. Lived between 155 and 150 million years ago, in the western United States and Portugal.
Silia’s devotion to dinosaurs started just after she turned 2. I don’t remember what sparked it, but today she loves the long names of the dinosaurs and learning about the different prehistoric periods. It’s like she can’t stop learning it all, and there’s always more for her to learn.
As a near-universal rule, kids love dinosaurs — if you weren’t obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid, you almost definitely know someone who was.
These kids can rattle off the scientific names of dozens, if not hundreds, of dinosaurs. They can tell you what these creatures ate, what they looked like, and where they lived. They know the difference between the Mesozoic and Cretaceous periods.
The level of dinosaur expertise a kid can have is seriously outstanding, particularly when you consider that the average adult can name maybe ten dinosaurs at best.
Scientists call obsessions like my daughter’s an “intense interest.” Researchers don’t know exactly what sparks them — the majority of parents can’t pinpoint the moment or event that kicked off their kids’ interest — but almost a third of all children have one at some point, typically between the ages of 2 and 6 (though for some the interest lasts further into childhood).
Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, has some theories. “I think for many of these children, that’s their first taste of mastery, of being an expert in something and having command of something their parent or coach or doctor doesn’t know,” he says. “It makes them feel powerful. Their parent may be able to name three or four dinosaurs and the kid can name 20, and the kid seems like a real authority.”
Intense interests are a big confidence booster for kids, agrees Kelli Chen, a pediatric psychiatric occupational therapist at Johns Hopkins.
They’re also particularly beneficial for cognitive development. A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests, particularly in a conceptual domain like dinosaurs, can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills.
In short, they make better learners and smarter kids. There’s decades of research to back that up: Three separate studies have found that older children with intense interests tend to be of above-average intelligence.
A dino obsession, then, can be a kid’s way of taking in a new subject in a way that feels familiar to them: through the business of having fun. “Asking questions, finding answers, and gaining expertise is the learning process in general,” Chen says. “Exploring a topic and mastering it is beneficial because that’s how we form careers as adults. A kid’s primary occupation is play, so they’re going about their job of playing through the lens of this thing they’re interested in learning about.”
And it’s probably not a coincidence that the age range for developing intense interests overlaps with the peak ages of imagination-based play (which is from age 3 through age 5). Michael Brydges, a 30-year-old data analyst working for the City of New York, says he fell in love with dinosaurs in first grade.
There are a number of reasons kids stop wanting to learn anything and everything about a particular topic, and one of the biggest is, ironically, school. As they enter a traditional educational environment, they’re expected to hit a range of targets in various subjects, which doesn’t leave much room for a specialization.
Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara knows most kids with an early interest in dinosaurs won’t become paleontologists, though many grow into adults with fond memories of their “dinosaur phase.” But in a 2016 TED Talk, he drives home the point that dinosaurs are really, really important, and not just to the people who dig them up.
“Want to design a system to move heavy loads over rough terrain? Dinosaurs did that,” he writes. “Want to understand mostly passive and efficient cooling systems? Sauropods were experts. Interested in upcycling, in repurposing technology? Look to the dinosaurs. Feathers are a marvelous example of exaptation, or the process of acquiring functions for which they were not originally adapted.
An abiding love for dinosaurs might be a fun but temporary phase, or it might help some budding scientist one day unlock the secrets to survival.
So yeah, kid, Stegosaurus is awesome. What else you got?
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