This past Friday, I had a truly remarkable experience. While visiting the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to give a talk in support of my recent book, I agreed to participate in an informal “meet and greet” with some local kids. When I walked out into the museum’s dinosaur hall at 2:00 pm as scheduled, I was, to put it bluntly, blown away. Here’s why.
I am not a big watcher of television. And I’m very concerned about the vast amounts of time that kids today spend staring at screens—not just TVs but computers, cell phones, and electronic games—instead of being outdoors. At latest count, children’s screen-time averages an astounding 10 hours per day. So when I was approached by Halle Stanford, Executive Vice President of Children’s Entertainment at The Jim Henson Company (you know, the creators of the Muppets) about advising on a new television series for preschoolers, I was skeptical to say the least. When she then told me the proposed name of the series—Dinosaur Train—I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. About half of all Americans believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, a staggering statistic that speaks as much to the current state of science education as it does to the influence of the religious right. As a paleontologist and science communicator, I regularly find myself (re-)stating the facts: dinosaurs (other than birds) died out more than 65 million years ago; humans first appeared only about 200,000 years ago. So the idea of mixing dinosaurs and trains in a television series sounded misguided at best—the Flintstones all over again.
But Halle went on to explain the show’s concept. A kid T. rex named Buddy is adopted by a Pteranodon family. Anxious to discover the identity of his species, Buddy sets out with his family members on the Dinosaur Train (operated by Troodons of course, the smartest dinosaurs) to travel around the Mesozoic and meet other creatures. Humans and dinosaurs, I was assured, would not appear together. The more I pondered this premise, the more convinced I became that the show’s creator, Craig Bartlett, must be a genius. If the goal is to get kids interested in science, why not tap into the two things they love most—dinosaurs and trains? And when I learned that the renowned Jim Henson Company had hooked up with PBS KIDS for the series, I realized that the offer was too good to resist. I said yes and embarked on a whirlwind year of brainstorming ideas and reviewing scripts.
Each half hour of Dinosaur Train includes two episodes. The bulk of each episode is devoted to eye-popping computer-generated animation, as Buddy and his family travel through a wondrous and whimsical (and generally friendly) Mesozoic world. Most episodes involve traveling on the train through space and time to meet a new kind of dinosaur. In addition to many of the old standards like Stegosaurus and Triceratops, the adventurous little tyrannosaur encounters plenty of recently discovered beasts that have yet to appear in kids books—for example, the winged Microraptor and the burrowing Oryctodromeus. In addition to dinosaurs, Buddy and his Pteranodon siblings meet a variety of other animals, from frogs and dragonflies to sharks and plesiosaurs.
While in the midst of working on scripts and reviewing artwork, I was invited to take on an additional role, on-air host of the show. I had done some television work previously, including serving as host for the Discovery Channel series Dinosaur Planet, but this was different. At the end of each animated segment, out comes “Dr. Scott the Paleontologist” to host a live-action “interstitial.” With help from a changing repertoire of children (and the always well dressed Mr. Disclaimer), I address the science behind the stories—not only what we know but how we know it. These segments make explicit connections between dinosaurs and animals living today, with the aim of inspiring excitement about nature generally, as well as getting kids outside exploring the natural world—even looking for “backyard dinosaurs” (aka birds). I conclude each half-hour show with the same closing line: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries.”
From the beginning, it was agreed that the show’s approach to science education would be ambitious. After consulting with experts in childhood learning, we adopted the philosophy that preschoolers can learn to think like scientists, critically evaluating alternative ideas. So Dinosaur Train goes beyond the names, sizes, and dietary predilections of dinosaurs to address the way life works, both then and now. Kids are encouraged to think like scientists, making observations, generating new ideas, and even testing those ideas. In most episodes, Buddy states, “I have a hypothesis,” and he and his siblings then set out to test it through additional observations.
I’m thrilled to be able to say that Dinosaur Train, which first aired on Labor Day of 2009, is already a roaring success. Millions of children all over the country and around the world are now tuning in daily to hear about Buddy’s latest hypothesis and learn more about dinosaurs. The December ratings revealed Dinosaur Train as the top-rated show on PBS KIDS, and among the top children’s shows on television. And, as I can report from numerous communications with parents, it has also become the springboard that we hoped it would be, getting kids outdoors with a renewed interest in understanding nature.
The runaway success of Dinosaur Train was underlined last Friday, when more than 700 people jammed the dinosaur halls of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to say hi Dr. Scott the Paleontologist. Over 500 of those people were children, and I had the pleasure of meeting every one of them. Many youngsters told me of their favorite dinosaur. Many others asked questions, shared their own dinosaur-related hypothesis, or expressed conviction about becoming a paleontologist. Some gave me presents of their own artwork. Smiling parents waxed on about their enthusiasm for the show. “Ever since Sam has been watching Dinosaur Train, he’s become fascinated by the birds in our neighborhood.” “Samantha now loves to play in the mud looking for dinosaur bones.” Prior to setting out on this adventure, I questioned the ability of television to get kids outside exploring nature. But no more. Thanks so much to all of you who came out to the Cleveland Museum last Friday (and to my talk at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History on Saturday). It was a wonderful experience meeting you all!
I am very grateful to be involved with Dinosaur Train, and all of us involved with the show are amazed and heartened by the enthusiastic response it has received. Thank you to all DT fans out there!
(A portion of this post was adapted from an article that appeared in issue #92 [Winter 2010] of Prehistoric Times Magazine.)