A trio of young boys recently walked around a corner in the Natural History Museum of Utah and stopped cold. In front of them stood the large skeleton of a robustly built Utahceratops, complete with three dangerous horns and a shield plate.
“Oh my gosh,” said 8-year-old Jake Jolley, pointing to the ancient creature. “Look at that!”
His two buddies stared with wide eyes and uttered one drawn-out word in unison: “Whoa.”
It was a classic response for most children that day as they absorbed every display and exhibit in the museum. According to Becky Menlove, associate director for visitor experience at the Natural History Museum of Utah in the Rio Tinto Center, kids are naturally fascinated by dinosaurs — “beyond belief."
“Clearly, there is something extremely captivating about this world of dinosaurs for young children of all ages,” Menlove said. “I think it just captures a child’s imagination in a way that nothing else does.”
Dinosaurs are back on the pop culture scene as another installment in the Jurassic Park film series, the highly anticipated summer release "Jurassic World," opens this Friday. In addition, several museums and sites around the state of Utah offer encounters with enormous dinosaur replicas and fossils.
So how do these extinct creatures with enormous bodies, sharp claws and razor teeth continue to captivate? Children, parents and a paleontologist offer some thoughts.
Kids' explanations for why they love dinosaurs vary, but they tend to focus on feelings of awe at the ancient creatures’ size and monsterlike qualities while still feeling safe because dinosaurs are extinct.
Henry Long, age 5, had a more simple answer: “Because they are cool,” he said. “I learned about them at school. If I could be a dinosaur, I would be a T. rex because I like them.”
Jennifer Long, Henry’s mother, has just as much fun watching her kids and learning along the way.
“Even as an adult, it’s fun to go through the museum because you learn something new each time,” Long said. “It’s also fun to watch the children’s eyes and see them get excited about everything.”
Nick and Brenda Forgacs like to take their sons, Jonas and Mason, to Ogden’s George S. Eccles Dinosaur Park, which features 8.5 acres of full-scale dinosaur sculptures. Dinosaurs have been a healthy obsession in the family since Nick read Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” novel and saw the movies.
“He’s a huge fan," Brenda Forgacs said. "That’s how our kids were introduced to the religion of dinosaurs. We’re looking forward to the new movie. Hopefully, it’s not too scary for the kids.”
Christine Schoonover is the mother of four kids ages 3 to 10, three of whom enjoy learning about dinosaurs. At home, they have dinosaur Halloween costumes, at least four Tyrannosaurus rex toys, dino figurines and one big poster of a T. rex.
“It’s a healthy passion," Schoonover said. "They love everything about them. I think it fascinates them that there are so many different types of dinosaurs. They are slightly intimidated by dinosaurs but in an exciting way.”
Casey Allen, park director at Eccles Dinosaur Park, said he is constantly impressed with how much children know about dinosaurs.
“They are running around telling their parents the name of each dinosaur," Allen said. "Kids have a whole different level of education than I had when I was a kid. … Whereas we had to go to a college library, they have information that is mind-boggling, and it's at their fingertips with the Internet.”
Menlove said Utah is a prime place to learn about dinosaurs. Paleontologists are actively researching and discovering new dinosaurs all the time, especially in recent years at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah.
“Utah is the greatest place to study dinosaurs and geology,” said Menlove, whose little sister once memorized the name of every known dinosaur when they were young. “The state is rich in history of rocks, along with an enormous diversity of plants and animals. It’s all pretty exciting.”
Menlove acknowledged that she’s no child psychologist or expert, but in her 15 years of working at the NHMU, she’s observed a fear factor.
“They are bigger and different than the animals kids see in day-to-day life," Menlove said. "Little goats don’t compare to T. rex. … It plays into the stories kids hear about monsters under your bed. I think part of it is this exciting world is accessible but not real. Knowing you are safe might have something do with it.”
The first three drafts of Crichton’s 1990 science fiction novel, “Jurassic Park,” told of a young boy at a theme park where dinosaurs escape, according to his website. But his circle of trusted test readers didn’t like it and encouraged him to change the story from a child's point of view to an adult’s. Crichton did so, and his friends loved it. The book would go on to sell millions of copies.
Yet when Steven Spielberg adapted the book into a movie in 1993, he put children back into the story. The film became a blockbuster that grossed more than $1 billion worldwide and captured the imagination of countless children and adults, including future paleontologist Randall Irmis, an assistant professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.
“I was the typical little kid who was interested in dinosaurs as far back as I can remember,” said Irmis, a curator of paleontology at the NHMU. “The movie ‘Jurassic Park’ was something that stuck with me, and I became more interested.”
When asked why kids love dinosaurs, Irmis referenced the power of imagination.
“Many are so different from anything alive today; it really strikes the imagination," Irmis said. "These are ancient creatures with spikes, horns, plates and in all sizes, and you can imagine them as living animals. Then you can see them in lifelike poses, not just as an image on a computer or TV, but an actual three-dimensional object. I think that combination of really cool- and weird-looking creatures sparks the imagination of people, not just with kids, but adults as well.”
“Jurassic World” includes a scene with children riding baby herbivores in a dinosaur petting zoo. Irmis hopes this film will cultivate a new generation of dinosaur-loving children and future paleontologists.
“I think the first ‘Jurassic Park’ movie was instrumental in inspiring a new generation of paleontologists and other scientists,” Irmis said. “Hopefully this new movie will have a similar effect and encourage kids to explore the sciences.”
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