Did you know that Diplodocus poop weighed about two tons, or that the T-rex was known as the Lizard King (sorry Jim Morrisson)? I didn’t, well, not until my 3-year-old son told me. He knows EVERYTHING about EVERY type of dinosaur.
Of course, I think my toddler is a genius, but to be fair, all kids know stuff about dinosaurs, and many kids love dinos. It’s a phenomenon, but one rooted in basic childhood development, say the experts.
“Around ages three to four, children tend to develop intense specific interests. This is the age when imagination-based play really takes off,” says Hannah Knott, MS, Certified Child Life Specialist, and Assistant Professor at Azusa Pacific University. “At this age children are still figuring out how to distinguish reality from fantasy; what is real and what’s my imagination? When the line between fantasy and reality is a bit blurred in your developing mind, something as cool as a dinosaur becomes that much more fascinating,” says Knott.
But why does my three-year-old need to play with dinosaurs? Why not the duck-billed platypus? It could be the continuous dino marketing of toys, books, and movies, but dinosaurs are so much more than cool products and storylines. They're a mix of reality and myth; that award-winning combination is what makes dinosaurs so mesmerizing, says Knott.
“Even though [adults] know these were real creatures that existed, because no one has ever interacted with a living dinosaur, they retain an element of fantasy that we are captivated by,” adds Knott. “The fact that some dinosaurs would have been so huge and so strong gives them almost a superhero status, especially to a child.”
Sure dinosaurs can peak a child’s imagination, and get their heart racing, but they can also make a positive impact on a child’s educational development, says Knott.
“Studies have shown that children learn more when they enjoy the process,” says Knott. “Having fun or being excited about what you’re learning increases neuron activity. When you enjoy something you’re doing, your brain is producing more oxytocin, more dopamine, more norepinephrine, and those are related to motivation, attention, and memory,” she adds.
The inner child in me knows there are a lot of great things about dinosaurs, but the grown up in me also knows that dinosaurs are not known for their warm and gentle nature. Some parents may find their child’s love of a ginormous carnivorous lizard that topples buildings a bit off-putting, but this is normal developmental behavior, says Knott.
“Playful aggression, sometimes called rough-and-tumble play, is also an important aspect of dramatic play that helps children learn cooperation, boundaries, and reciprocity,” says Knott. “So, when a child is crashing dinosaur toys together, or growling and pretending to bite her brother because she’s the carnivorous dinosaur and he’s the unfortunate prey, it’s not necessarily something to discourage. Playful aggression helps children learn how to get along, and as long as everyone is having fun, it’s a good sign social-emotional learning is happening,” adds Knott.
If you have a child that’s just gaga for a Gallimimus — inside dinosaur joke — here is a list of must-have prehistoric toys for kids of all ages. Go forth and embrace the dinos.
Must-Have Dinosaur Toys for Toddlers and Kids
When my son plays with his cow and cowboy hand puppet, the conversations tend to be pretty epic. Will they talk about the good ole days before comets, or will they discuss inflation and the stock market? Who knows? Dinosaur hand puppets are one-size-fits-all, and each hand puppet is sold separately.
This toy is simple, colorful, creative and fun to pick up and put down. Use these to learn colors, practice counting or just for imaginative play. My three-year-old can’t get enough of his “jar of dinosaurs.”
The Tonies storybox is a huge winner in our house—it’s all story time and no screen time. Just plop your little Tonie on the box and let the adventure unfold. This Tonie from National Geographic teaches kids about the various dinos, their fossils, their natural security defenses and talks about the times in which dinos lived. (Toniebox Audio Player is sold separately.)
This 500-piece puzzle assembles and then dazzles. Just flip the light to flip the script on the scene. What was once an array of colorful dinos becomes a glow-in-the dark fossil site. It’s a great holiday gift for dino fans age eight and up.
Not all dinosaurs have to be ferocious. This cuddly little guy is always ready for a snuggle or to be the voice of reason for the more feisty dinosaurs. Soft and weighted, this plush pillow is ready to hibernate whenever your child is.
Now this prehistoric park is one I can get behind, and one that your kiddo can sit his or her behind on. This colorful play rug from Melissa & Doug is machine washable, and includes four dinosaur play figures. A great play piece for a child just starting out in imaginative play.
Brachiosaurus, to rook, or is it Velociraptor check or is it Pteranodon checkmate? Either way, this Jurassic Park chess set will keep the chess playing fun going for centuries. It comes with 32 sculpted dinosaur pieces, and an 18 ½-inch tall chess board. Fit for kids age seven and up.
Want to walk with a dinosaur, or at least feel like you are walking with one? This immersive dinosaur experience puts your child in prehistoric times, without any of the prehistoric dangers. Gift set includes an activity book, VR goggles and a dig-out fossil. Best suited for someone aged eight and up.
Talk about when imagination and cognitive play meet—these Magna-Tiles come in XL pieces for XL dino-loving fun and Jurassic level builds. The set includes 50 pieces and is recommended for ages three and up.
This dinosaur toy is one for the whole family to enjoy, and one that will be the hit of your next summer pool party. This motorized dinosaur float is a legend in itself. Big enough to accommodate an adult up to 250 pounds (or roughly 5.9 three-year-olds), this float will have you cruising in style from one end of the pool to the next.
This two-seater play jeep is 100 percent nicer than my first actual car. It has trunk space, power lock brakes and parent-controlled speed. Ideal for kids ages three to seven (and if my sister is reading this, Wyatt would love it if Santa brought this for him for Christmas.)