Pretty much every kid in the world goes through a “dinosaur phase,” when he or she eats, sleeps and breathes dinosaurs. Sometimes this happens as young as two or three, and a precocious tot pronounces the word “tyrannosaurus” before he can wrap his mouth around “please” or “thank you.” Usually it occurs around the age of six or seven, when kids are just starting to come to grips with scientific concepts and can extrapolate the behavior of dinosaurs from the wildlife they see at the zoo. Occasionally, a particularly bright child will carry on his love of dinosaurs through adolescence and adulthood; some of these lucky individuals go on to be biologists and paleontologists. But why, exactly, do kids love dinosaurs so much?
Reason No. 1: Dinosaurs Are Big, Scary – and Extinct
The most likely explanation for why kids love dinosaurs is that these huge, dangerous reptiles went extinct over 65 million years ago (though that might as well be 65 years from the perspective of your average pre-schooler). The fact is, most kids don't worship at the altar of lions, tigers or timber wolves, probably because these fierce carnivores can easily be seen (either at the zoo or on TV) stalking their prey and ripping into freshly killed antelopes. Children have vivid imaginations, meaning it's a short step from witnessing a hyena demolishing a wildebeest to picturing themselves on the lunch menu.
That's why dinosaurs have such enormous appeal: the average grade-schooler may have only a vague idea when dinosaurs went extinct, but he knows, for a fact, that they're no longer around. A Tyrannosaurus Rex, no matter how huge and hungry, is thus rendered completely safe, since there's no chance of accidentally running into one during a nature excursion or at summer camp. This is likely the same reason that some kids are obsessed by zombies and vampires; they know, deep down, that these mythical creatures don't really exist, despite the protestations of some misguided adults.
Reason No. 2: Dinosaurs Get to Do What They Want
Remember those old Calvin & Hobbes comic strips in which Calvin pretends to be a big, lurching dinosaur? That, in a Jurassic nutshell, is the second reason kids love dinosaurs: no one tells a full-grown Apatosaurus that he has to go to bed, finish his peas before he can have dessert, or take care of his baby sister. Dinosaurs represent, in kids' minds, the ultimate id principle: when they want something, they go out and get it, and nothing had better stand in their way.
This, no surprise, is the side of dinosaurs most often portrayed in children's books. The reason parents don't mind when their kid pretends to be a fierce Allosaurus is that this kind of “disobedience” allows him to harmlessly blow off steam; it's better to deal with a pesky, hyperactive dinosaur than an entirely human kid having an ugly tantrum. Books like Dinosaur vs. Bedtime exploit this dynamic perfectly; by the last page, the dress-up dinosaur has finally settled down for a night's sleep, after winning a series of dramatic battles against a playground slide, a bowl of spaghetti, and talking grown-ups.
Reason No. 3: Dinosaurs Leave Really Cool Skeletons
Believe it or not, until 20 years ago, most kids learned about dinosaurs from mounted skeletons in museums, and not computer-animated documentaries on The Discovery Channel or the BBC. Because they're so big and so unfamiliar, dinosaur skeletons are somehow less creepy than the skeletons left by modern wolves or big cats (or human beings, for that matter). In fact, many kids prefer their dinosaurs in skeleton form--especially when they're putting together scale-sized models of a Stegosaurus or Brachiosaurus!
Finally, and most important, dinosaurs are really, really cool. If you don't get that, then you probably shouldn't be reading this article in the first place. Perhaps you'd be more comfortable learning about birding or potted plants!