Ammonites and pretend paleontology

We recently visited an exhibition about creatures that lived in the Permian period (299 to 251 million years ago). For anyone reading this who, like me, isn't very familiar with geological time periods, this is the last part of the Paleozoic era which preceded the Mesozoic era (divided into Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods which may be more familiar to those with knowledge of dinosaurs). I think most of the exhibition was completely lost on my 3 and 1 year olds and the 3 year old was petrified of the animatronic 'monsters'. All that said, however, my 3 year old found two things that fascinated him - a book about caring for the environment and a hands-on activity to excavate a huge pretend ammonite fossil.

Excavating at the Permian monsters exhibition

The ammonite was buried in what seemed to be brown granules of playground flooring type material and they provided chunky brushes and paleontologist hats for kids to wear as they brushed away the 'dirt' to reveal the fossil. We re-buried the pretend ammonite a few times and repeated the 'excavation'. He was having so much fun, and I was distracted with making sure his little brother didn't eat the pretend dirt, that at the time we didn't discuss what it was that he was brushing the dirt off.

Salt dough 'ammonites' before baking

I thought that, as he'd enjoyed the excavation so much and we hadn't talked about the ammonite, that it might be nice to try something similar at home.  Without any fossils at home, I thought I'd try making one from salt dough.  The recipe I used for the dough was 200g plain flour, 100g salt and 110ml water.  I mixed the ingredients, kneaded the dough, and then shaped the ammonites.  I made a larger and a smaller one, both from a long sausage shape which was wide at one end and narrow at the other.  I rolled this around into a spiral and then made indentations with a lolly stick.  I baked the shapes in the oven (at 100 degrees Celcius) for 2 hours (smaller one) and 2.5 hours (larger one).

Baked 'fossils'

I wanted to make the activity suitable for doing indoors and such that both of my boys could have a go (my 13 month old still attempts to eat unsuitable things occasionally and I didn't fancy sand all over the house), so I made a food-based sand substitute.  The recipe for this was 140g plain flour, 20g cocoa powder and 20ml sunflower oil.  I've seen a flour and oil mix similar to this referred to as 'cloud dough' and it seems it's popular for sensory play for small children.

Ready for excavation

I put the fake fossils in a plastic box with a layer of the fake dirt on top and found a well-used children's paint brush to use.  I decided it might be a nice relaxing activity for after preschool when my son is usually tired and a bit grumpy, and I put it on the table ready for him to find, forgetting that my younger son would probably spot it before we went to collect the big one.

The little one having a go

The little one toddled over and picked up the paint brush and set to work brushing the dirt off the salt dough 'fossil'.  He was being really careful, so I watched over his shoulder, ready to catch the box as he inevitably knocked it off.  Only he didn't, and he spent a good 5 minutes brushing the fossils before noticing I was watching and deciding he wanted to do something else.   I need not have worried about him eating it either!

I piled the 'dirt' back on top of the ammonite shapes and left it for my 3 year old to find.  He was, as predicted, somewhat grouchy on returning home, but he perked up when he spotted the box.  He asked if he could have a go, and set to work brushing too.  I don't know what he thought he was going to find, but he seemed suitably pleased to discover the spiral shapes, and observed that they were like little versions of what he'd found in the museum.

More brushing

I asked him what they were, and he wasn't sure.  He thought the big one looked like a number 6 and the little one like a number 9!  I explained that - whilst these weren't real - they were meant to be like fossils.  Fossils are what is left of creatures that lived a long time ago, and they let us see what sort of creatures lived before any humans existed.  He thought about this for a long time, and then asked how long ago.  I explained that it was millions of years, but as he doesn't really have a concept of how big a million is, I doubt this really meant much to him.

Admiring the fossils

I told him that these were meant to look like ammonite fossils, and that an ammonite had been a creature with a spiral shell.  I asked if he thought they had lived in the sea or on land, and he thought on land. They actually lived in the sea - they are related to modern-day cephalopods such as nautilus, squid and octopus.  He seemed to take this in, and decided to repeat the excavation process a few times after he'd taken a good look at the salt dough shapes.  We talked a little more about how paleontologist is the name we give to people who find fossils and discover what they tell us about the creatures that used to live on planet earth. He wanted to know how I'd actually made the pretend fossils, and I explained that they were made of flour and salt and baked in the oven!

There wasn't a huge amount of science in this activity, but it hopefully helped him make a little more sense of what he was doing in the museum.