Dinosaurs are awesome. Don’t try and deny it – I know you love those trips to see dinosaur skeletons just as much as the kids do. What’s more, it’s a well known fact that we mums and dads have so many dinosaur facts in our heads that the more useful information has started to leak out. Half the time I can’t even remember the name of the Prime Minister, but ask me how Stegosaurus used its plates to regulate its body temperature and suddenly my brain goes into hyperdrive.
I think my own love of dinosaurs was ignited when I first visited the “Badlands” of Alberta, home to the aptly named Dinosaur Provincial Park. It was there that I got to hold my first ever dinosaur bone, and search for fossils while listening out for deadly rattlesnakes… ah, the joys of growing up in the 70s!
In London this winter, you can enjoy a fantastic dinosaur experience, without the added threat of being attacked by a rattlesnake…
Dinosaur Zoo at the Phoenix Theatre is like no other show out there… instead of cuddly singing creatures, there are appearances by incredibly lifelike dinosaur puppets which will have your kids swinging wildly between giggles and absolute terror.
I have the remarkable opportunity to meet Dinosaur Zoo director Scott Wright and pen a few notes while he reminisced about the evolution of the show itself. He was an artist and activist, and wanted to create something that would prompt people to think about the natural world, about ecology and evolution, and the importance of indigenous folklore. After he and his friends had put on a show with intricate gargoyle puppets, anthropologist and museum director George F MacDonald prompted them to take a similar approach to bring dinosaurs to life.
The dinosaurs they created were released into the Melbourne Museum and were an instant hit, quickly making their way into Auckland and then to LA’s Natural History Museum. Being sticklers for detail, for every new locale they created dinosaurs found in that area, making the creations all the more special.
The success of the dinosaur puppets was incredible, and the team received a wonderful, heart-warming bit of news… two-thirds of the people who came to the museum to see the dinosaurs had never even been to the museum before. What a wonderful thing is must be… to know that your creation has inspired a family to leave the TV and video games aside to come to a museum exhibit!
From there, the team started making plans for a show, one which would deliver all of the practical facts about paleontology but still allow the audience to suspend their disbelief and be transported into a world where dinosaurs still roamed.
The results are incredible – the dinosaur puppets are amazingly detailed, and within about 3 minutes you completely forget that there are human arms or black-legging-clad legs sticking out of them.
While some parts of the show are scripted, the most magical parts are when the children are invited on to the stage to pet or feed (or be fed to) the dinosaurs. For the director, the children’s complete unpredictability in how they react to the dinosaurs (and completely forget that they are just puppets) is the most endearing part of the show.
So what is it that makes dinosaurs so cool? According to Scott Wright, what grips us is our deep rooted desire to share stories of our natural history and the evolution of our world. He sees dinosaurs as a ‘gateway’ subject – their story engages both parents and children so shows like Dinosaur Zoo become a rare shared experience. Learning about how the creatures have evolved differently around the world also prompts the kids to think about why some living things flourish while others die out, and maybe even start looking at the natural world in a different way.
For budding scientists, it’s also a wonderful opportunity to talk about how our knowledge and even the most robust beliefs can change with time, technology and new discoveries… after all, most of us grew up believing in giant lizard-style dinosaurs, not a feather in sight. And don’t even get me started on Brontosaurus! He was my favourite dinosaur ever … until the day I read Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs to my kids and he was nowhere to be seen… the kids (then aged 3 and 4) broke the news to me and I was devastated.
I digress… Is Dinosaur Zoo worth seeing? Absolutely. Will your kids be completely terrified? Yeah, that too.
My little boy was wide-eyed throughout, alternately hiding under the seat, under my arm, under his coat, and then finally at the very back of the theatre. But he was 100% engaged, first in line to go and pet the baby dinosaurs after the show, and has talked of nothing else since.
Dinosaur Zoo is at the Phoenix Theatre in the West End until January 12th 2014, and on UK tour until April 2014. Suitable for ages 3 and up – but the older kids will enjoy it more!
You might also like:
Cutting Edge workshop for families – discover how museum palaeontologists use skulls to learn about the diets of dinosaurs in this enlightening session about teeth and diet, including object handling and group activities.