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Unit Study: Dinosaurs

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I’m a firm believer that the best science education starts with lots of time outdoors; what better way to appreciate and understand the natural world than by experiencing it firsthand? Children are natural explorers, observers, and recorders—as long as grownups give them enough space to adventure at their own pace. This unit study serves as a supplement for that kind of outdoor education by providing resources that enrich children’s understanding of natural history and the contemporary world.

READ: combine fiction, non-fiction, picture books, and simple reference-style books for variety

National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs by Catherine Hughes and Franco Tempesta (language arts, science)

National Geographic Kids Ultimate Dinopedia: The Most Complete Dinosaur Reference Ever by Don Lessem, Franco Tempesta, and Rodolfo Coria (language arts, science)

Dinosaur A-Z: For Kids Who Really Love Dinosaurs by Roger Priddy (language arts, science)

Dinosaurs A-Z: Dinosaur Train by Andrea Posner-Sanchez and Terry Izumi (language arts, science)

The Dinosaur Museum: An Unforgettable, Interactive Virtual Tour Through Dinosaur History by The National Geographic Society and Sebastian Quigley (language arts, science)

How Do Dinosaurs… series by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague (language arts, science)

Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Byron Barton (language arts, science)

Bones, Bones, Dinosaur Bones by Bryon Barton (language arts, science)

Dinosaurumpus by Tony Milton (language arts, science)

Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct by Mo Willems (language arts, science)

Dinosaur Dream by Dennis Nolan (language arts, science)

Shadow of the Dinosaurs by Dennis Nolan (language arts, science)

The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs by Joanna Cole (language arts, science)

Encylopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs: The Definitive Pop-Up by Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart (language arts, science)

Big Book of Dinosaurs by D.K. Publishing (language arts, science)

Dinosaur Bones by Bob Barner (language arts, science)

Dinosaur Train Field Guide by PBS (language arts, science)


WATCH: see these amazing creatures come to life on screen accompanied by music and fun facts

Dinosaur Train (Dinosaurs A-Z, Dinosaurs in the Snow, Dinosaurs Under the Sea, Dinosaur Big City, T-Rex Tales, Pteranodon Family Adventure, Big Big Big, Submarine Adventures, Eggstravaganza) (science, music)

Sesame Street’s “Herb the Plant-Eating Dinosaur” (Season 37, Episode 3) (science, music)

Sesame Street: Dinosaurs (science, music)

Walking with Dinosaurs (science, music)

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? (and More Classic Dinosaur Tales) (language arts, science)


LISTEN: set as background music for playtime or bop along in the car as science gets set to music

Once Upon a Dinosaur (science, music)

Most Amazing Dinosaur Songs (science, music)

Wee Sing Dinosaurs (science, music)

Dinosaur Train Volume 1 (science, music)


MAKE: incorporate dinosaurs into craft-time and creative play

Color a Pteranodon, a Plesiosaurus, a T-Rex, fossils, a Stegosaurus, and Dinosaur Train characters (science, art)

Hide mini-dinosaurs in plastic eggs and host a “hatching” party (science)

Make a feast for herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores (science, home economics)

Make Dinosaur playdough shapes (use a cookie cutter or just your imagination) (science, art)

Play with prehistoric pals like these (science, plain old fun)

Practice tracking on a nature hike (science)

Stamp or sticker a dinosaur scene, or turn it into a diorama (science, art)

Stomp, roar, flap (more fun)

Sort the mini-dinosaurs: count and classify by species, family, type of eater, and time period (science, math)

Track dinosaurs across a “mudpit” (real mud or playdough) (science)

Take dinosaurs to the “sea” (bath or water table) (science)


How to Develop a Unit Study

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(This image courtesy of Carolina Weick’s Walk With Me Photography)

A unit study is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning. It starts with a topic and explores the depth and breadth of that subject. The key is that in a unit study, all of the traditional subject areas (language arts, social studies, science, math, home economics, physical education, art, and music) filter through the topic of choice.

I favor a unit studies approach in all levels of my teaching (from preschool-at-home to my college classroom) for several reasons:

  • A Whole Picture: academic disciplines naturally overlap anyway because they are artificially-created. Unit studies offer a holistic approach that makes time and study both more fluid and less burdened by unnecessary interruptions for switching subjects.
  • Context is King: a unit study contextualizes information, making it both more meaningful and more memorable. Seeing the same topic from multiple perspectives engages our critical faculties and allows us to think through different lens for interpreting the world.
  • Loving Learning: unit studies draw on the interests of the teachers and learners, mirroring the natural learning process that we engage in when we pursue what we love; this, too, makes learning more enjoyable, meaningful, and memorable.

With enough thought, flexibility, creativity, and resourcefulness (thanks, in large part, to a good public library), it is easy to create a unit study out of any topic. The key here is not to crush that love of learning by forcing a unit study (or any other kind of learning). For small children, follow their interests and keep it fun and low-key. The older learners get, the more they should be actively directing the content of the unit study; we have to own it to really learn it.

Below, I provide a sample pre-school unity study that my elder daughter and I are currently doing. The concepts and materials reflect her level, but the process remains the same even as the learner develops. On a practical level, at home, this looks like a huge stack of books and materials that my daughter can access. We integrate them into our day as we desire, which sometimes means an entire day of play devoted to the unit study, sometimes a few stories at bedtime, and sometimes nothing at all. This pattern fits my larger belief that we are always learning something, and that children (like other humans) learn best through curiosity—not compulsion.

Sample Unit Study: Paris in the Springtime


Unit Study: Paris in the Springtime


My elder daughter recently found a glass replica of The Eiffel Tower among my trinkets. It fascinated her, and she recognized the landmark from the Madeline stories. We’ve been exploring Paris ever since, and the resources below will show you how I’ve created a unit study based on her interests. My disclaimer is to follow the child’s lead and not push to make things strict or overtly education. Keep it flexible and playful, or kids will resist (or just hate it), and that’s not the purpose of creative inquiry.

This unit study is weighted toward culture (lots of humanities), so adding math and science requires additional resourcefulness. I’d also say it’s OK to not be perfectly balanced on coverage of all subjects in all unit studies, because my goal is balance over the long term (a month, several months, a year) not in a day or week.


READ: Balance fiction, non-fiction, reference, children’s and adult’s books (like the coffee-table art book).

Adèle & Simon by Barbara McClintock (language arts, social studies, geography)

“CIA World Factbook: France” (language arts, social studies, geography)

Charlotte in Paris by Joan MacPhail Knight and Melissa Sweet (language arts, social studies, art)

Chasing Degas by Eva Montanari (language arts, art)

Degas and the Little Dancer by Laurence Anholt (language arts, art)

E is for Eiffel Tower: A France Alphabet by Helen Wilbur and Yan Nascimbene (language arts, social studies, geography)

Everybody Bonjours! by Leslie Kimmelman and Sarah McMenemy (language arts, social studies)

Getting to Know France and French by Nicola Wright and Kim Wooley (language arts, social studies, home economics, geography)

Henri Matisse: Drawing with Scissors by Jane O’Connor and Jessie Hartland (language arts, art)

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (language arts)

The Louvre: All the Paintings by Vincent Pomarède, Erich Lessing, Loyrette Henri and Anja Grebe (art)

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelans (language arts)

The Magical Garden of Claude Monet by Laurence Anholt (language arts, art)

The Mona Lisa Caper by Rick Jacobson and Laura Fernandez (language arts, social studies, art)

Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck and Marjorie Priceman (language arts, social studies, art)

This Is Paris by Miroslav Sasek (language arts, social studies, geography)


WATCH: Use film where audio and visual matters most (like hearing native speakers of a language, seeing artwork or a city).

Brainy Baby: French (language arts–French)

Linnea in Monet’s Garden (art)

Little Pim (language arts–French)

The Red Balloon (language arts, social studies, geography)


LISTEN: Add music and audiobooks for immersion in the sounds of native speakers and creation of a fun atmosphere.

French Playground (music)

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (language arts–French)

Paris (music)

Putumayo Presents: French Café (music)

Songs in French for Children (music)


MAKE: Get creative and incorporate the unity study into everyday play; the possibilities are endless!

Build a replica of The Eiffel Tower with blocks (mathematics, art)

Cook Cool French Cooking: Fun and Tasty Recipes for Kids by Lisa Wagner (home economics, science, mathematics)

Color The Eiffel Tower (art, social studies)

Color the French flag and map (art, social studies, geography)

Color a world map (art, social studies, geography)

Create an Impressionist-inspired picnic (art)

Make a passport to Paris (art, social studies)

Set up a café at home (home economics, science, mathematics)

Track The Tour de France (mathematics–convert kilometers and miles, measure the route, track riders’ distances and percentage of riders in race, count finishers; social studies, geography)

Send postcards from France (art, social studies)