The Kiddy Pool: It Takes a Village (of Time-Traveling Dinosaurs)

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

My toddler and I watch Dinosaur Train nearly every afternoon after she wakes up from her nap. The PBS show follows the Pteranodon family, a nuclear clan of 5 pteranodons and an adopted Tyrannosaurus Rex named Buddy. During each episode, Buddy and his family explore the Mesozoic Era, meet its inhabitants while learning about the natural world, sing catchy tunes, and, of course, ride the time-traveling train for which the show is named. Buddy and his siblings love learning about the different features of dinosaurs and other species, but for the family’s lone theropod member, these lessons in diversity are critical to his coming-of-age.

Mr. and Mrs. Pteranodon have established a loving household in their nest at Pteranodon Terrace, yet there are serious gaps in the education they can provide for Buddy. They don’t have teeth, so they don’t know how to respond when Buddy starts losing his. They eat only fish, so they never teach Buddy how to hunt or find the carrion that comprises a T-Rex’s typical diet. Even their fishing is based on the ability to fly, which isn’t something Buddy can do. And the Pteranodons live year-round in their nest, whereas most of Buddy’s species migrate, following their prey just as their prey follows the foliage. Each of these lessons is essential to Buddy’s survival as an adult T-Rex, but his parents lack the knowledge their son needs most.

This exaggerated emphasis on what the parents lack shifts the focus to the surrounding community of dinosaurs. The family seeks advice from the train’s theropod conductor (Troodons are supposed to be the smartest dinosaurs), spends a day fishing with The Old Spinosaurus so Buddy can learn theropod fishing styles, and meets up with a Tyrannosaurus family that can mentor Buddy about his teeth and his future. In each instance, the Pteranodon parents need to recognize their own gifts and limitations in order to best help their child. That lesson is writ large in a family where members are not part of the same species, but it applies to us modern-day humans as well.

Just as Buddy’s family needs a large network of creatures to thrive, so too do we parents need a strong support system to raise our children well. That means seeking out, serving, and accepting help from people unlike ourselves, from all walks of life. The family unit, in short, functions best as part of the body of Christ, with each member humbly recognizing strengths and weaknesses and fulfilling his or her role. For Buddy, that translates into honoring the species-specific features of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and for those of us watching his ride on the Dinosaur Train, it indicates the significance of interdependence and communal living. It takes a village, they say, and that message rings true all the way from the Cretaceous time period.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Ben Bartlett

    Dinosaur Train has other good lessons too. For instance, they keep repeating the statement that a hypothesis is, “An idea you can test!” It wasn’t long before my son knew what a hypothesis was.

    So I stole the idea. Every time I want Isaiah to be more patient, I say, “Isaiah, you need to be patient. What does patient mean?” and he says, “Patient means waiting without complaining.”

    Behold the power of edutainment.

  • Geoffrey R.

    Erin,

    I spent almost a third of my life (from 3rd to 12th grade) intent on being a paleontologist, and growing up, television and movie dinosaurs frustrated me to no end, because they were always so inaccurate! Dinosaur Train, which my kids enjoy, would have appealed to me, because even now (having been away from dinosaurs for awhile), I can still recognize the solid science. Though I find the writing a bit cheesy at times and the characters’ voices somewhat contrived, the educational content and excellent animation helped redeem it in my eyes. And I had never really considered the “it takes a village” theme, but as usual, it’s a terrific insight on your part. It’s an insight easy to miss in American culture, where we tend to isolate the family unit more than most cultures in the past (or even the present) have done. I fear many conservative Christians may avoid Dinosaur Train because it is predicated on an old-earth timeline and presupposes evolutionary theory. That would be a shame because, even if you disagree with these positions, there are many excellent features to it. And I agree with Ben on the presentation of the scientific method. As Dr. Scott would say, “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”

    Geoffrey R.