Saturday, 6 June 2015

The beauty of dinosaur names and home education.

Can you say, "Coelophysis, children?"

I've become a great fan of palaeontology ever since my elder got into dinosaurs. Well, we didn't just 'get into dinosaurs', we got into dinosaurs. We bought many basic books on dinosaurs (we have a shelf full) but we also invested in Walking With Dinosaurs, the BBC book of the programme that came out in 1999. We also have the download - it is one of the few programmes we watch: we don't have a tv in the house and we don't let the children watch whenever they feel like it. For the most part they entertain themselves and learn through play. The programme presents incredible imagery of what early life on the planet may have been like and shows the behaviour of the early reptiles and dinosaurs (they're different, as my elder will point out) in a way that a book can't do so well for the young mind.

The vocabulary of the book is high - beautifully so, and I know my lad (and then his younger brother) would not get all the words, but slowly the meanings crept in. I heard them talk of coelophysis, Pangaea, cycad groves. They recreated the scenes they had watched and heard - and began to observe that many children's basic dinosaur books had huge errors in them. In fact, one of my elder's earlier jokes was: "Why couldn't the T-rex eat the Stegosaurus?" I came up with some plausible musings about the plates on his back or other defensive mechanisms..."No! They lived in different eras!!" he laughed.

The 'pedagogical point' is that we do well to expose our children to high level vocabulary. Walking with dinosaurs has complex sentences that stretch the mind's stamina and a breadth of new words that  my boys hear me practising new or unusual vocabulary, breaking the words down and testing them out before settling onto something that sounds fine. (With a comment, "I think that's how it's said"). It's great for them to hear an adult struggle - because, as they learn to read, that's what they are doing.

I've a PhD in philosophy in which a vast vocabulary is eminently useful. But trying to get the tongue around some of the dinosaurs' names presents a lovely challenge.

Coelophysis - coe is usually /see/
Ornitholestes - trips one up a bit. I often ask my elder, "How do you say that one again?"
Rhamphoryncus - took a few goes!
Ornithocheirus - not too bad since I've studied chiropractic. He became a family favourite with many pictures adorning walls and condensation, models, and drawings in books.
Muttaburrasaurus...sounds like hiccoughs.
Or how about "a clan of Leaellynasaura". Yep.

Exposure to such words is, I believe, helping my elder read well. As he matures, the connections between the words will become apparent: ornitho = bird; pod = foot; saur = lizard; rex = king; tri = three, etc. And dinosaurs are great to draw - we've a couple of drawing books that have helped my skills and I often find paper lying around that the boys have drawn well proportioned various dinosaurs and reptiles. It's also a laugh to explain the difference between how reptiles of the Permian period walked compared to theropods (beast foots) of the Late Triassic.

The books and programme have also helped us learn about the depth of earth's history. I typically read to them a lot of prehistory and my elder and increasingly his younger 4 year old brother know which era the various dinosaurs lived in. They both incidentally know about the birth of the moon as we often rehearse 'how it all started'. We collect fossils from our area and go to museums to see fossils and dioramas (a word they both use a lot of when setting up a scene).

I must admit to being rather proud when I found an ornithocheirus vertebra in Leicester museum and showed it to my elder. He stood and stared at it for ages. School kids - a couple of years older - were running by, high on sugar, this way and that, barely looking at anything, never stopping to stare and wonder. The contrast was amazing. (No, I'm not saying that school kids don't have their inferences there, just the contrast was stark to see one person engaged in his passion compared to the people elder would be bored at a football match!). His face was a picture of pure bliss. Lovely. I hope he keeps that for whatever he turns his mind to.

We continue to learn about the dinosaurs and I've stretched their learning into geology: we've looked at obvious strata in the cliffs at the seaside. We've also moved forward to hominid history - I took my elder to an open lecture at Nottingham on australopithecus (took me a few goes to get it!): we spoke to the lecturer afterwards and he asked why she didn't do much on homo ergaster! Again, I don't expect him to remember much - but the exposure is paramount. So many books (and teachers) talk down to children (I often do an impression of a high pitched patronising teacher); we don't need to - they can pick up what they can, their minds are very plastic.

We've learned to knap flints a little - I'm too impatient, but he's managed a few flint pieces he's proud of!

Sometimes what we've learned together slips away like water off a duck, but other times I'm surprised at what they recall. We're all like that - if we find our passion, we'll learn everything about it. Sat down and forced to learn something we're not too keen on...grab the coffee and grit the teeth!

Unsurprisingly, the boys want to become explorers and palaeontologists. Who knows where their passions will take them, but I'm witnessing a wonderful upbringing in and around our home. Their interests are not thwarted by state imposed curricula and are not impeded by time. They're learning breadth and depth and I am exposing them to the flow of geological and biological history as we read together.

But don't get me wrong: I'm not 'producing geeks' here. Childhoods needs innocence - which partly explains why I focus a lot on prehistory. People aren't going around killing each other yet. They're aware a little of the brutality of human history and they're certainly comfortable with the viciousness of nature. We also still read Thomas the Tank engine, the Foxwood series (beautifully illustrated), Bob the Builder, Dick King-Smith and anything else that takes their fancy. Instead, I'm aiming to sustain their curiosity and support their passions. Something that oft gaes awry in school.

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