What is a Dinosaur?

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Students will use observing and sorting & classifying skills to learn that dinosaurs are extinct animals that share common characteristics.

Overview

Students will sort and classify toys, some of which are dinosaurs and some of which are not. Through sorting and classifying, students will learn about dinosaurs as a class of extinct animals that share common characteristics.

Timing

30-45 minutes

Setting the Stage

Dinosaurs are a tremendously popular subject with many children. Dinosaurs show up everywhere in popular culture, from cartoon characters and t-shirt decorations to movie villains and sports team mascots. In fact, dinosaurs appear so vivid in popular media that it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that they’re extinct animals!

Did you know?

The word Dinosaur comes from the Greek word for “Terrible Lizard.” It was first defined by the British scientist Sir Richard Owen in 1842. Over 1 000 different types of dinosaurs have been discovered since then!

We can see many animals at the zoo. But to see a dinosaur, we have to go to museums and see their fossils. The key to getting children thinking of dinosaurs in a scientific way is to get them thinking of dinosaurs as animals that once did all of the things that animals do today.

Misconception Alert

People tend to think of any extinct creature that lived during the Mesozoic Era as a “dinosaur.” But the world in which dinosaurs lived for approximately 150 million years had many different types of animals, only some of which were dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are a distinct class of animals. They are on the same level as amphibians, birds, fish, mammals and reptiles.

          Kingdom: Animalia

                    Phylum: Chordata (animals with a central nervous system)

                              Subphylum: Vertebrata (animals with a backbone)

                                        Class: Dinosauria

All dinosaurs share a number of common characteristics that, together, make them unique from other animals. 

Dinosaur sorting chart
Chart summarizing the characteristics of dinosaurs (© 2019 Let’s Talk Science).

 

Graphic - Text Version

Dinosaurs had two or four legs, laid eggs, could not fly, could not live in water, had their bodies under their legs, did not have fur, had long tails and had small eggs. Dinosaurs are extinct.

Misconception Alert

Dinosaurs are not reptiles! Although their name translates as “Terrible Lizards,” dinosaurs are a separate class from reptiles. There are significant differences between the two classes.

In this inquiry, students will sort and class dinosaurs to learn about them as a class of extinct animals that share common characteristics. 

This inquiry could begin from:

  • Observing a toy dinosaur. Discuss using questions such as:
    • What type of dinosaur is this? 
    • What body parts do dinosaurs have?
    • How do we know how big dinosaurs were? 
Assortment of toy dinosaurs
Assortment of toy dinosaurs (©2019 Let’s Talk Science).
  • Reading a book such as How does a Dinosaur Say Goodnight?Boy, Were we Wrong about Dinosaurs! or I Am Not a Dinosaur. Discuss using questions such as: 
    • Why was the dinosaur acting this way at bedtime? How are you like this dinosaur at bedtime? (For How Does a Dinosaur Say Goodnight?)
    • How have we learned more about dinosaurs? Do you think there is still more to find out? 
    • What kinds of dinosaurs does the little pterosaur come across? (For I Am Not a Dinosaur)
Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night (Source: (Source: Open Library).
  • Visiting a museum and viewing fossils at a museum, or discussing fossils students have previously seen at museums. Discuss using questions such as:
    • What surprised you about the fossils?
    • How did the museum display the dinosaur fossils?
    • Which dinosaur is your favorite? Why?
Skeleton of a Triceratops in a museum
Skeleton of a Triceratops in a museum (Source: dmusicat via Pixabay).

Details

Materials

  • Images of different types of dinosaurs (optional) (e.g., DiplodocusStegosaurusTriceratops and Tyrannosaurus
  • Toy dinosaurs, assorted
  • Toy non-dinosaurs (animals that are not dinosaurs)
  • Dinosaur Classification Chart reproducible [Google doc] and [PDF]
  • Sticky notes
  • Sorting bins, hoops or mats
  • Bag
Potential dinosaur sorting materials
Potential dinosaur sorting materials (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

Materials

  • Images of different types of dinosaurs (optional) (e.g., DiplodocusStegosaurusTriceratops and Tyrannosaurus
  • Toy dinosaurs, assorted
  • Toy non-dinosaurs (animals that are not dinosaurs)
  • Dinosaur Classification Chart reproducible [Google doc] and [PDF]
  • Sticky notes
  • Sorting bins, hoops or mats
  • Bag
Potential dinosaur sorting materials
Potential dinosaur sorting materials (© 2019 Let's Talk Science).

Preparation

  • Gather images of Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus.
  • Bring in toy dinosaurs and other animals and place them in the bag. If you are unable to find suitable plastic dinosaurs and other animals for the investigation, use appropriate pictures. 
  • Place sticky notes over the boxes on the Dinosaur Classification Chart. Familiarize yourself with the characteristics on the chart. You may wish to create your own blank chart with the children to fill in during the investigation.
  • Set up bins, hoops or mats for sorting.

Preparation

  • Gather images of Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus.
  • Bring in toy dinosaurs and other animals and place them in the bag. If you are unable to find suitable plastic dinosaurs and other animals for the investigation, use appropriate pictures. 
  • Place sticky notes over the boxes on the Dinosaur Classification Chart. Familiarize yourself with the characteristics on the chart. You may wish to create your own blank chart with the children to fill in during the investigation.
  • Set up bins, hoops or mats for sorting.

What to Do

Students use a Sorting Mat learning strategy to develop and apply the skills of Observing, Comparing & Contrasting, Sorting & Classifying and Making Connections to learn about dinosaurs and what it means to be extinct.

  • Have students observe the four dinosaur pictures. Talk about the animals in the pictures. Emphasize their similarities and differences.
  • Talk about the common characteristics of dinosaurs. Remove the sticky notes to uncover the characteristics listed on the dinosaur classification chart as they are discussed. Make sure that the entire chart gets uncovered and all of the characteristics are discussed. Alternately, create a chart showing the common characteristics of dinosaurs as the characteristics are discussed.
  • Using the chart, sort the toy animals into “dinosaurs” and “dino-nots” piles using a Sorting Mats learning strategy (e.g., using sorting bins, hoops or mats). As the animals are sorted, students give reasons for where they are placed.

What to Do

Students use a Sorting Mat learning strategy to develop and apply the skills of Observing, Comparing & Contrasting, Sorting & Classifying and Making Connections to learn about dinosaurs and what it means to be extinct.

  • Have students observe the four dinosaur pictures. Talk about the animals in the pictures. Emphasize their similarities and differences.
  • Talk about the common characteristics of dinosaurs. Remove the sticky notes to uncover the characteristics listed on the dinosaur classification chart as they are discussed. Make sure that the entire chart gets uncovered and all of the characteristics are discussed. Alternately, create a chart showing the common characteristics of dinosaurs as the characteristics are discussed.
  • Using the chart, sort the toy animals into “dinosaurs” and “dino-nots” piles using a Sorting Mats learning strategy (e.g., using sorting bins, hoops or mats). As the animals are sorted, students give reasons for where they are placed.

Assessment

Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, students’ ability to:

  • Observe - students observe a variety of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs
  • Compare & Contrast - students identify similarities and differences between dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, drawing on observations and new and prior knowledge
  • Sort & Classify - students sort and classify dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs based upon given dinosaur classification criteria
  • Make Connections - students use prior knowledge and information gathered to draw conclusions about the characteristics of dinosaurs and characteristics of non-dinosaurs to understand what it means to be extinct

Assessment

Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, students’ ability to:

  • Observe - students observe a variety of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs
  • Compare & Contrast - students identify similarities and differences between dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, drawing on observations and new and prior knowledge
  • Sort & Classify - students sort and classify dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs based upon given dinosaur classification criteria
  • Make Connections - students use prior knowledge and information gathered to draw conclusions about the characteristics of dinosaurs and characteristics of non-dinosaurs to understand what it means to be extinct

Co-constructing Learning

Students:
Saying, Doing, Representing
Educator:
Responding, Challenging

Students observe and compare and contrast a variety of types of toy dinosaurs and toy non-dinosaurs.

 

Students discuss and explain the rules for the classification of dinosaurs, referring to the Characteristics of Dinosaurs chart.

  • “What do you notice about all of the toys on the table?”
  • “What is the same about these toys? What is different about the toys?”
  • “How do each of these animals move? Which animal can fly? Does this animal lay eggs to have babies?”
  • “What is unique to this animal?”
  • “How do we know that an animal is a dinosaur?”
  • “How can we tell dinosaurs apart from other animals?”
  • “What is one characteristic of dinosaurs that does not apply to the other animals here?”

Students sort and classify the assortment of toys into ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘dino-nots’ groups. 

Students organize their sort with the aid of a graphic organizer.

  • “What else is the same about all of the things in this group?” (e.g., all have legs under their body; they all have no fur, etc.) “What differences do you notice?” (e.g., some have long tails)
  • “Where are the ears on this toy alligator? How are the ears on the alligator similar to the ears on a T-Rex dinosaur?"
  • “What sorting rule did you use to place this creature in the dino-nots group?”
Students make connections to draw conclusions about the characteristics of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, and what it means to be extinct .
  • Where might you see this animal today? Where would you see a dinosaur today?”
  • "Are any of these criteria particularly helpful for deciding between the dinosaurs and the dino-nots?” 
  • “Have you seen any of these animals in nature or in a zoo? “
  • “What does it mean to be extinct? If you could travel back in time, what dinosaur would you like to see? Why?”

 

Co-constructing Learning

Students:
Saying, Doing, Representing
Educator:
Responding, Challenging

Students observe and compare and contrast a variety of types of toy dinosaurs and toy non-dinosaurs.

 

Students discuss and explain the rules for the classification of dinosaurs, referring to the Characteristics of Dinosaurs chart.

  • “What do you notice about all of the toys on the table?”
  • “What is the same about these toys? What is different about the toys?”
  • “How do each of these animals move? Which animal can fly? Does this animal lay eggs to have babies?”
  • “What is unique to this animal?”
  • “How do we know that an animal is a dinosaur?”
  • “How can we tell dinosaurs apart from other animals?”
  • “What is one characteristic of dinosaurs that does not apply to the other animals here?”

Students sort and classify the assortment of toys into ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘dino-nots’ groups. 

Students organize their sort with the aid of a graphic organizer.

  • “What else is the same about all of the things in this group?” (e.g., all have legs under their body; they all have no fur, etc.) “What differences do you notice?” (e.g., some have long tails)
  • “Where are the ears on this toy alligator? How are the ears on the alligator similar to the ears on a T-Rex dinosaur?"
  • “What sorting rule did you use to place this creature in the dino-nots group?”
Students make connections to draw conclusions about the characteristics of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, and what it means to be extinct .
  • Where might you see this animal today? Where would you see a dinosaur today?”
  • "Are any of these criteria particularly helpful for deciding between the dinosaurs and the dino-nots?” 
  • “Have you seen any of these animals in nature or in a zoo? “
  • “What does it mean to be extinct? If you could travel back in time, what dinosaur would you like to see? Why?”

 

Cross-curricular Connections

Literacy

  • Use oral language to explore and develop an understanding of ideas and concepts (e.g., the difference between living animals and extinct animals)
  • Use processing skills (e.g., draw conclusions about criteria for classifying dinosaurs)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Organize objects into categories by sorting and classifying objects (e.g., sort and classify dinosaurs from non-dinosaurs; sort and classify using specific criteria)
  • Counting (e.g., number of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, number of two-legged versus four-legged dinosaurs)
  • Ordering (e.g., by size, from smallest to largest)

Cross-curricular Connections

Literacy

  • Use oral language to explore and develop an understanding of ideas and concepts (e.g., the difference between living animals and extinct animals)
  • Use processing skills (e.g., draw conclusions about criteria for classifying dinosaurs)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Organize objects into categories by sorting and classifying objects (e.g., sort and classify dinosaurs from non-dinosaurs; sort and classify using specific criteria)
  • Counting (e.g., number of dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, number of two-legged versus four-legged dinosaurs)
  • Ordering (e.g., by size, from smallest to largest)

Extending the Learning

  • Add other types of animals (both dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs) to the sort pile.
  • Sort by only some of the characteristics (e.g., have long tails, have legs under their bodies) instead of the entire array. What other types of animals get sorted together with dinosaurs when this is done?
  • Brainstorm a list of dinosaurs.

Did you know?

Scientists now classify birds as living dinosaurs. They are part of the family known as theropods. This is the same family that all carnivorous dinosaurs belonged to! Why?

  • Fossils show that some dinosaurs had feathers 
  • Birds and meat-eating dinosaurs have similar skeletons

If you have trouble thinking of a bird as a dinosaur, take a really good look at a bird’s leg and foot.The next time you see a bird, imagine it as a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus!

Close-up of a chicken’s feet
Close-up of a chicken’s feet (Source: Studiolarsen from Pixabay).

 

Extending the Learning

  • Add other types of animals (both dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs) to the sort pile.
  • Sort by only some of the characteristics (e.g., have long tails, have legs under their bodies) instead of the entire array. What other types of animals get sorted together with dinosaurs when this is done?
  • Brainstorm a list of dinosaurs.

Did you know?

Scientists now classify birds as living dinosaurs. They are part of the family known as theropods. This is the same family that all carnivorous dinosaurs belonged to! Why?

  • Fossils show that some dinosaurs had feathers 
  • Birds and meat-eating dinosaurs have similar skeletons

If you have trouble thinking of a bird as a dinosaur, take a really good look at a bird’s leg and foot.The next time you see a bird, imagine it as a distant cousin of Tyrannosaurus!

Close-up of a chicken’s feet
Close-up of a chicken’s feet (Source: Studiolarsen from Pixabay).

 

Supporting Media

Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? (Source: Open Library).

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

By Jane Yolen

A playful peek into the homes of dinosaur children and their parents at bedtime.

ISBN: 9780007137282

Cover of Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! By Kathleen V. Kudlinski
Cover of Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! (Source: Open Library).

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs!

By Kathleen V. Kudlinski

Examines what is known about dinosaur bones, behavior, and other characteristics and how different the facts often are from what scientists, from ancient China to the recent past, believed to be true.

ISBN: 978-0142411933

Cover of I Am Not a Dinosaur by Mary Packard
Cover of I Am Not a Dinosaur (Source: Open Library).

I Am Not a Dinosaur

By Mary Packard

As a baby pterosaur learns how to fly, it gains self-esteem and discovers the many dinosaurs in its Jurassic landscape.

ISBN: 9780590689977

Reproducible

Dinosaur Classification Chart [Google doc] [PDF]

 

Supporting Media

Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night?
Cover of How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? (Source: Open Library).

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?

By Jane Yolen

A playful peek into the homes of dinosaur children and their parents at bedtime.

ISBN: 9780007137282

Cover of Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! By Kathleen V. Kudlinski
Cover of Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs! (Source: Open Library).

Boy, Were We Wrong About Dinosaurs!

By Kathleen V. Kudlinski

Examines what is known about dinosaur bones, behavior, and other characteristics and how different the facts often are from what scientists, from ancient China to the recent past, believed to be true.

ISBN: 978-0142411933

Cover of I Am Not a Dinosaur by Mary Packard
Cover of I Am Not a Dinosaur (Source: Open Library).

I Am Not a Dinosaur

By Mary Packard

As a baby pterosaur learns how to fly, it gains self-esteem and discovers the many dinosaurs in its Jurassic landscape.

ISBN: 9780590689977

Reproducible

Dinosaur Classification Chart [Google doc] [PDF]

 

Learn More

How did dinosaurs leave fossils behind? (Hands-on Activities)

Using a toy dinosaur and some plaster of Paris, learn how dinosaur footprints could become fossils.

The Classification of Life: From Linnaean Taxonomy to DNA Barcoding (Backgrounder)

Learn about the ways that we've learned to classify the life around us. 

Jordan Mallon - Research Scientist in Palaeobiology (Careers)

Career profile of a Research Scientist in Palaeobiology.

Learn More

How did dinosaurs leave fossils behind? (Hands-on Activities)

Using a toy dinosaur and some plaster of Paris, learn how dinosaur footprints could become fossils.

The Classification of Life: From Linnaean Taxonomy to DNA Barcoding (Backgrounder)

Learn about the ways that we've learned to classify the life around us. 

Jordan Mallon - Research Scientist in Palaeobiology (Careers)

Career profile of a Research Scientist in Palaeobiology.

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