The following project constitutes a half-hour activity for 3-, 4-, or 5-year olds. It includes the entire process from finding fossils to putting the recovered pieces together like a puzzle to drawing our best guess at what it looked like in life. The details of the project are based on my experience working in Neil Shubin’s lab around the time he discovered Tiktaalik roseae and my involvement in the reconstructions and illustrations that followed, but they can be adapted for most any important fossil find. For approximately $7 you can recreate your own fossil hunting expedition using Tiktaalik or any other fossil and teach kids about the process of paleontology from research to reconstruction. Here’s what it looks like:
In this activity, kids dig through a cardboard box full of shredded paper to find “fossils.” The fossils are pieces of felt that have been cut out to resemble bones or bone groupings from Tiktaalik roseae (or any fossil animal of your choosing) and some associated animals and plants that would have been found alongside it. Each child is given the opportunity to find one fossil. Then the class works together to reconstruct the animal and its environment by matching each fossil to a color-coded template you have pre-glued on a large piece of black felt (felt sticks to felt so no special fasteners are needed for the kids to stick their bone on the template you’ve made – this also allows you to reuse the kit for multiple lessons). While working on the reconstruction puzzle, open conversations about where Tiktaalik lived, what it might have eaten, and anything else the kids are interested in. When the reconstruction is done, the kids can swap their scientist hats for scientific illustrator hats as each child is given the opportunity to draw what they think the animal looked like. The entire activity can be fit into 30 minutes or drawn out as long as you like. Total cost of materials is approximately $7 (assuming you have access to hot glue gun – if not, you can get a small one for under $10 at a craft or hardware store). Prep time depends hugely on your cutting speed and attention to detail, but plan on 2-3 hours.
You’ll need to do a little prep work to create the pieces that will be dug up as fossils. Because of the use of a glue gun and hot glue, I do not recommend doing this with young children present. Also, it takes some time to cut the felt – much longer than your average 4-year old’s attention span.
Creating the Felt “Fossils”
1. Creating paper templates: Using the skeletal reconstruction of Tiktaalik as a rough guide, draw 14 bones (or bone groupings to avoid small pieces that might get lost in the shredded paper) on computer paper. Once cut out, these will form the templates for cutting the felt squares into the shapes that the kids will “dig up.” To tailor the activity to the number of kids in your class, trace and cut out some associated fossils – fish and plants that might have been found in association with Tiktaalik remains. Not each kid will find a piece of Tiktaalik, but you can emphasize that we learn a lot about the fossils we dig up by paying close attention to the other plants and animals that we find with it. Also, don’t worry if you’ve made 22 fossil bits and due to class size of 18, not all of the Tiktaalik pieces are found. This is a natural part of paleontology – we always hope to find the whole animal but it is very rare. So if kids end up “finding” more of the associated fossils and don’t complete the Tiktaalik puzzle, go with it! It’s all part of the process.
2. Cutting the felt “fossils”: Once you cut out the paper templates, place each template on a colored piece of felt. Trace the shapes onto the felt, grouping bones by color to help in the assembly stage. These colors are just a suggestion; feel free to substitute whatever floats your boat:
These felt “fossils” will be buried in a cardboard box filled with shredded paper that kids will dig through on their fossil hunt. Once they find a fossil, they will stick it onto a color-coded puzzle template you have pre-assembled and glued onto a large piece of black felt (step 3). If you are doing this activity with older kids, you may want to skip the color-coded template and have them piece together their finds onto the large piece of black felt without extra help.
3. Creating the color-coded puzzle template: Once the felt “bones” are cut out, it’s time to make the template that will help the kids piece their Tiktaalik puzzle together. Take closely colored (but not exactly matching) pieces of felt and lay the Tiktaalik bones you just cut out on top (no need to do this with the associated fossils as the kids can get creative about putting these onto the black felt board). With the Sharpie, trace a 1/8″ to 1/4″ margin around each of the fossils. These do not have to be nearly as detailed as the fossils – they are merely guides to help the kids place the bones in the correct place.
4. Lay the felt guides onto the large black felt piece in the shape of the completed Tiktaalik skeleton. When you’re happy with the placement, heat up your glue gun and glue each guide onto the black felt. DO NOT GLUE THE FOSSIL PIECES ONTO THE GUIDES! The felt “fossils” will stick naturally to the guides when the kids remove them from the shredded paper.
5. In preparation for the classroom activity, secure a cardboard box that the kids can reach into easily and decorate the outside however you like. Fill it 3/4 full with shredded paper and scatter the felt fossils inside. Prepare a handout with the skeleton of Tiktaalik roseae and a space for the kids to draw what they think the animal looked like in life. Now you’re ready to go!
In the Classroom
Take the children on an expedition to the Arctic! Why do we look for fossils in the Arctic? Because there are no houses, no schools, and no trees. Just rocks. And where do we find fossils? In rocks! Perfecto. Have the children put on their imaginary fossil-hunting gear and give each one the opportunity to dig through the shredded paper to find one fossil. Explain that some finds will be a part of the Tiktaalik fish you are looking for and others will just be plants and animals that lived next to Tiktaalik. After each child has had the chance to dig for a fossil, direct them towards the color-coded puzzle template and let them figure out where their piece fits. Opportunities to talk about what the animal ate, where it lived and what it looked like will present themselves – have fun and be amazed at the quality of questions that come up.
Once the kids have successfully completed the reconstruction puzzle, explain that after scientists find fossils and work to piece them together, it’s time to bring in the scientific illustrators who make the images and models they see in museums. Give each child a piece of paper with the skeletal reconstruction of Tiktaalik and tell them that this is the information the scientific illustrators start with. Point out all the clues they uncovered from the fossils dig and encourage them to come up with a picture of what they think it looked like and where they think it lived. You’ll be impressed with how much they pick up and how excited they get. If you try this activity, send pictures and let me know how it went!
Happy fossil hunting!