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U.S.A. Popcorn Adventure #86
April 16, 2009

Romping Through History

Dinosaurs Before Dark + Natural Museum of History

Our kids first understood the joy of independent reading with The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne.  Jack, age 8, and Annie, age 7, are siblings who discover a tree house full of books.  The children quickly learn that by pointing to a picture in a book and wishing they could be there, the tree house whirls them to a different place and time. Our kids loved learning that ninjas aren't turtles when Jack and Annie flew to ancient Japan and meeting Plato in ancient Greece shed a whole new light on the Olympics.  In the first book, Dinosaurs Before Dark, the tree house sends Jack and Annie to the Cretaceous period to encounter a Pteranodon, a Triceratops, nests of Anatosauruses and a mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. Jack accidentally attracts unwanted attention from the T-Rex, but returns safely to the tree house when the Pterandon swoops down, Jack climbs on his back, and both fly away from the T-Rex's jaw.

We wanted our children to experience how books truly are the doorway to different worlds, so we got in the habit of planning excursions that matched our favorite Magic Tree House books.  To enjoy a hands-on dino experience after Dinosaurs Before Dark, we traveled to our local Natural History Museum. The kids loved seeing fossils of a T-Rex in battle with a Triceratops.  The attacking T-Rex in the center of the rotunda dispelled all notions that dinosaurs are purple and cuddly.  We all fell in love with the playful, life-size adolescent Triceratops puppet during a Dinosaur Encounter and the kids scrambled to be the volunteer to feed it palm branches.  We topped off our excursion by watching the paleontologists cleaning and assembling Thomas the T-Rex, a 14 year old dinosaur that sparkles.  Our kids left in awe, excited about reading about Annie and Jack's next adventure.

Film Title: Dinosaurs Before Dark
Directed By: Mary Pope Osborne
1992, Rated G, short chapters

Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Book:

  • Why It's Worth It:  These books are great for kids in the first through third grade when they're just starting to read chapter books on their own, yet aren't ready for the parent-child book club crowd.  Each book is different, but with a similar format so they're interesting while not overly challenging.  They can be read in any order, so pick the topics that interest your child. We found that our daughters and sons liked them equally; this is one of the few series that is gender neutral. 
  • Non-Fiction Companions:  Several of the books have accompanying non-fiction Research Guides.  The reading level is a smidgen higher than the fiction books, so a little parental help may be needed, but all-in-all these are great reference books for the early elementary school set.
  • Series Savvy:  The first part of the series consists of 28 books, each visiting a different time and place in history.  At every location Jack and Annie explore, make an acquaintance and run into trouble.  They escape back to the tree house to travel home through a combination of Jack's thinking and Annie's daring and ability to make friends.  By the fourth book, Jack and Annie learn that Morgan le Fay, King Arthur's sister, designed the tree house to gather books through time.  In addition to the time travel adventures, every four books have an overarching theme or mystery involving Morgan and her quest for great books.  Merlin Missions, a second series, starts with book #29 when Merlin, rather than Morgan, sends Jack and Annie on adventures.  This series brings in two more characters, Teddy and Kathleen.  The reading level and story complexity are notched up a bit.

  • Book Bits:  Before an excursion, we breezed through the book to get an idea of the topic and the tidbits of information in the story.  During our excursion, we related what we were seeing to what happened to Jack and Annie.  We saw an egg of an Anatosauruses just as Jack and Annie did, we talked about how small the dinosaurs were at birth and how large they grew, similar to bears today.  We always tried to expand the topic so our kids left with a little more information than they arrived with.
  • The Fact that your Sibling is Different is a Good Thing:  Jack and Annie have different personalities and strengths.  Both are curious, but Jack is bookish and cautious while Annie is intuitive and daring.  Annie would rather experience something than read about it.  We talked to our kids about how these traits landed Jack and Annie in and out of trouble and how people with different strengths can work well together.


Visit Dinosaurs at a Natural History Museum

Age Recommendation:  All Ages

Time Allotment: Two hours


Our Buttery Bits of Wisdom about this Adventure:
  • What Worked for Us: Remember our advice when taking younger kids to a museum, make it short and sweet and give them something to eat. We gave our kids a notebook (like Jack!) and dug up some clues to help them track down cool dino facts.
  • Before You Go: Check your museum's website and look for educator information on the exhibit. These teacher areas usually have loads of good information and activity ideas for touring the exhibit.
  • A Place to Play: Our last stop was our museum's Discovery Center, where the kids could touch a variety of fossil replicas and decide which part of the body they are from.  Check to see if your museum has a hands on activity involving fossils.  There may also be a lab where you can observe paleontologists or volunteers preparing fossils for exhibition.
  • Website:  On the Magic Tree House website kids can have their own passports and earn a passport stamp after completing a quiz on each book.  The website includes links to appropriate sites on the topic and suggestions for further reading.  For the child who is fascinated with a topic, look at the teacher guide for additional activity ideas.
  • Musical:  There is a Magic Tree House Musical traveling the country, check the website to see if it's coming to your city.
  • More Adventures:  Continue the fun. We've matched up a few of the books with past Kid's Off the Couch adventures: check out Rocket Science after your child reads Midnight on the Moon; Walk Like An Egyptian pairs perfectly with Mummies in the Morning; head to a Renaissance Faire with Fair Thee Well! after reading The Knight at Dawn; and experience a real performance at Shakespeare Rocks! after finishing Stage Fright on a Summer Night.

Our City Editors' tips for enjoying this Popcorn Adventure around the USA:

  • Anywhere: Google your city + dinosaurs, or check your local museum of natural history.
  • Boston: The Harvard Museum of Natural History at 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge is a fun museum for kids to view dinosaur fossils. The most awe-inspiring are the 42-foot-long Kronosaurus and the famous "Harvard mastodon" found in New Jersey in 1844. Check out whale skeletons, a stuffed Tasmanian Tiger-Wolf, marsupials and other zoological oddities.
  • Houston: The Houston Museum of Natural Science offers the Hall of Paleontology.  From the humble trilobite to the mighty T-Rex, this exhibit will bring you face-to-face with the creatures who once ruled our planet.  After visiting the hall, hop over to the planetarium to view “The Dinosaur Prophecy”, which visits dinosaur graveyards and reconstructs how these animals lived and died to solve four famous cold cases from the age of the dinosaurs. Pre-purchase tickets online to save time and skip the lines.
  • New York: The American Museum of Natural History is home to the single largest collection of dinosaur fossils in the world. As you roam the Fossil Halls you'll see the famous Tyrannosaurus rex and the Apatosaurus (previously known as the Brontosaurus). The halls also include favorites such as the Stegosaurus and Triceratops.
  • Washington, D.C.: For an exploration of all things dinosaur, head to the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.  The Hall of Paleobiology includes the exhibits: Dinosaurs, Life in the Ancient Seas, Fossil Mammals and Fossil Plants. Also check out the Fossil Lab were you may get to see paleontologists at work.

Want more? Here are KOTC's picks of films, books, music, and websites that connect your family to more culture.

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