Children's Dinosaurs in Spotlight : County Museum Exhibits Westland Pupils' Reptile Show

Laviola is a View intern

The Westland School dinosaurs are spending their summer vacations in a museum.

After visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History dinosaur exhibit to discover artists' conceptions of how dinosaurs looked based upon the latest scientific studies, Westland School second-graders gathered scraps of wood, paint and glue and did some interpreting of their own.

They must have done a pretty good job, because when James Olson, acting head of exhibits at the museum, saw the results, he decided the children's creations were worthy of an exhibit alongside the museum's dinosaurs. Both exhibits will run through Aug. 31.

It may not be the first museum exhibit by children, but it is rare, according to Olson, who could not remember a similar showing at the county museum. As fellow scientific discoverers, the children were invited to visit the paleontology laboratory, generally closed to the public.

"These are dinosaurs put in their simplest forms. It is refreshing," Olson said. "All the artists (in the regular dinosaur display) work from information from the fossil record and the little bit of record there is of fossilized skin. When it comes to color, it's all speculation. To me, the kids' speculations are as valid as anyone else's.

"It is an interesting twist to see how kids envision it. I would say if you were to come here on a weekend and talk with visitors, you would get more accurate information from the children than from the majority of adults who come in here--they like this stuff, they enjoy it, they're turned on by it, they are excited by it."

That's how education works at Westland School, according to director Muriel Dulberg, with the staff of the private school on Mulholland Drive striving to turn the children on to education. About 120 children from kindergarten through sixth grade attend. Tuition is $3,800 a year and about 20 scholarships are awarded to assure a culturally and economically mixed student body.

The concentration is on social studies, but education is integrated, according to Dulberg. That means that mathematics, science and reading are taught by studying a particular project, such as another country or another era. When children study a subject, they become immersed in it, experiencing rather than just reading about it. Because of that, field trips are a central part of the Westland School experience-related approach to education, with classes taking an average of about one trip a month, in addition to close trips in the neighborhood.

So, when the 21 7- and 8-year-olds began studying animal behavior this year, they started with dinosaurs. They visited the museum, created a trivia game, even wrote a song about dinosaurs. After dinosaurs came woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers and a visit from a parent who is a dentist to learn how teeth disclose animals' behavior patterns and environments. They went on field trips to the La Brea Tar Pits and on a whale-watching cruise and their classroom contains cages, bowls and aquariums filled--separately--with fish, salamanders, a snake, hermit crabs, hamsters and a rabbit.

Although children from other schools may be reading before Westland's students, Leatrice Sokoloff, teacher of the second-level class, thinks her students are ahead of them because "they've had a tremendous amount of real thinking."

The classes at Westland School are not strict grade levels but six units made up of children of varying ages, selected to be in a particular class not by virtue of passing or failing (there are no grades or report cards at Westland), but rather by the way they can affect the group and by the way the group may affect them. For example, Dulberg said if a child is the youngest in his family, it might be advantageous to put him in a group of younger children, giving him an opportunity to be the oldest for a while.

The arts--music, plays, block building and painting--are used extensively at the school to help the children express their ideas and acquired knowledge. One of the most exciting aspects of the dinosaur study for Sokoloff was watching the children gain enough knowledge to change their past misconceptions, such as thinking that all dinosaurs were huge, or meat-eaters, or that they all lived at the same time.

"You try to spark an idea, or their curiosity, and hope it carries the children along to want to find out more at some point about something else," the teacher said. "I think that's really what it's all about."

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