A psychological explanation for kids’ love of dinosaurs

by Kate Morgan

Susan Alloway’s daughter Erin was very specific about her Halloween costume. It couldn’t be just any dinosaur: Erin, 6, wanted to be an Ozraptor.

For the record, an Ozraptor is an abelisauroid theropod dinosaur that lived in modern-day Australia during the Middle Jurassic period.

It’s also definitely not something a mom can buy off the rack at Party City.

“I Googled it, and there’s nothing,” Alloway says. “There’s like two pictures of an Ozraptor. But she said it had to have real feathers, so I used a bajillion feathers, and nobody knew what she was, but she didn’t care.”

Erin’s devotion to dinosaurs started just after she turned 4. Alloway doesn’t remember what sparked it, but today her daughter’s favorite place is the large dinosaur section in their local public library: “She loves that it feels never-ending,” Alloway says. “There’s so much information, and 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.”

She’s in good company. 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 astounding, particularly when you consider that the average adult can name maybe ten dinosaurs at best.

Scientists call obsessions like Erin’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). And while studies have shown that the most common intense interest is vehicles — planes, trains, and cars — the next most popular, by a wide margin, is dinosaurs.

It’s not generation-specific, either. Land of the Lost may have inspired dino-fever in Generation X, and ’90s kids can trace it back to Jurassic Park and The Land Before Time, but an obsession with all things dinosaur is no less prevalent today than it was when you were a kid. The only difference is in the numbers: In 2016 alone there were more than 30 new dinosaurs discovered, bringing the list of potential favorites to more than 700.

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara was a young boy with an intense interest in dinosaurs that never faded. In 2005, he discovered a giant plant-eating dinosaur in southern Patagonia. He named the beast, which stood more than two stories tall and weighed more than a Boeing 737, Dreadnoughtus. Lacovara is currently the director of Rowan University’s Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park, and visiting parents constantly tell him about kids who are crazy for dinosaurs.

“I hear it over and over” from parents, he says: ‘They know all the names! I don’t know how they remember that stuff.’” But Lacovara does, or at least he 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. After devouring every dinosaur book in his school’s library, he wrote and illustrated his own picture books. By second grade, he was telling adults he wanted to be a paleontologist.

“They’re these huge things that I couldn’t believe really existed,” he says. “I wanted to dig them up, and prove to myself that they were real. As a kid, you’re so small, and it’s even more daunting to think about a dinosaur that stood 30 feet tall. They were just the most awesome thing I could imagine.”

By third grade, though, his interest had waned. That’s common, too — for most kids, intense interests burn bright and quick. In a study published in 2007, researchers who followed up with the parents of 177 kids found that the interests only lasted between six months and three years.

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.

“It’s not a quick drop-off, like, ‘Oh, now I hate dinosaurs,’” says Elizabeth Chatel, a marriage and family therapist in Norwalk, Connecticut. “It’s just that life gets busy and the world opens up, and other interests start to engage them.”

There’s also a big social component to the waning of an intense interest, as kids begin to interact with their peers on a daily basis and realize not everyone is all dinosaurs all the time.

“Maybe at home the interest was being reinforced, and the positive feedback loop was, ‘Johnny knows that’s a pterodactyl, Johnny’s a genius!’ When you’re getting praise over and over again for having information about a subject, you’re on a runaway train to Dinosaurland,” Chatel says. “But then school begins and the positive feedback loops shift to, ‘Johnny played so well with others, Johnny shared his toys and made a friend.’”

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 and the accompanying 2017 book, Why Dinosaurs Matter, 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. Since da Vinci, and probably long before, humans have been fascinated with self-powered flight, something that we’ve been unable to substantially achieve. Dinosaurs did this 150 million years ago.”

Each year, scientists are learning more and more about dinosaurs, and, Lacovara argues, this treasure trove of information can’t come soon enough. “People, even paleontologists, are more concerned with the future than with the past,” he writes. “But we don’t have access to the future. We can make no observations of it and can conduct no experiments in it … But the past can be embraced. You can hold it. Crack it open. Put it in a museum for all to see. Most important, the past is our guide to the future.”

Most weeks, Lacovara invites school field-trip groups into his fossil park, a former quarry he hopes will eventually become a UNESCO World Heritage site, because he knows the kids getting dirty digging for fossilized clamshells may carry the experience with them long after they go home. 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, Ozraptor is awesome. What else you got?

Central photo: Getty Images

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