They’re big, they’re old, and they’re awesome. Everything a kid is not. They can hold the attention of twenty high-energy first graders for twenty minutes or more. No person alive can accomplish this feat no matter how big, how old, or how awesome they are. But dinosaurs can do it. What is it about dinosaurs that makes them so appealing to kids?

Is it their size? Maybe. But not all dinosaurs were huge. Archaeopteryx resembled a lizard with wings and feathers and was about the size of a crow. Of course, Apatosaurus was fifteen feet high and sixty feet long and probably weighed in at forty tons. And the great horned monster, T. rex, was no small fry. When you’re only three feet tall and you consider a creature that’s as long as a sixty foot tape measure laid out on the lawn, there’s more than a little to think about.

Is it their age? Probably not. I am impressed by the fact that dinosaurs lived over 200 million years ago and continued to roam the earth for more than another 100 million years. But this concept of time is hard enough for me to imagine. When you are five years old, you couldn’t care less.

Is it their variety? Maybe. Dinosaurs come in many shapes and sizes. Who doesn’t find the giant fins on the backs of ferocious meat-eaters curious or downright bizarre? And how about the long snouts or giant heads with dagger-like teeth, or amazing wingspans sported by creatures that look like something from another planet?

Dinosaurs appeal to the imagination. Almost all children love drawing pictures of them. You can’t make a mistake. Any size, shape or color will do. Last summer some YSI campers made a video featuring dinosaurs against a backdrop of “real” erupting volcanoes (fashioned from vinegar and baking soda), engaged in bitter fights and fanciful flights. Why not?

But my favorite theory of why dinosaurs appeal to kids is that kids—and I—like their big long names. Ichthyostega, Dimorphodon, Lufengosaurus—these are fun, and even possible, to say. They follow the rules for English pronunciation. Kids capture dinosaurs when they learn their names. Once captured, a dino can be controlled and it becomes a friend—a big, old, awesome friend. Parents don’t know this dinosaur!

Kids learn about their dinosaur and maybe invent a few things about it. Who’s to say they’re wrong? (Well, maybe another kid who knows the real “truth”.) They can tell their parents everything about their dinosaur. They know more than their mom or dad!

Never mind that by next year they may not know a Segisaurus from a Maslodonsaurus. They’ve had their moment of glory—their first taste of what it’s like to know something other people don’t. Dinosaurs live on to this day helping legions of children learn the thrill of knowing.

Technical information for this article came from the experts—the kids. For five- and six-year olds, dinosaurs are the power players.

YSI has a school and group program called Dinosaurs and Fossil Fun and a summer camp called Jurassic Giants.