Dig It!

Children will learn about what paleontologists do and the tools that they use.

Lesson Objective

Children will explore what paleontologists do and experiment with the tools they use to learn about the history of life on Earth.


What You'll Need

  • Magnifying glasses – 1 for every 2 children
  • Sieves or colanders – 4
  • Small wooden mallets – 1 for every 2 children
  • Used coffee grounds – 2 cups
  • Flour – 2 cups
  • Salt – 1 cup
  • Sand – 3/4 cup
  • Water – 1 cup
  • Small plastic dinosaurs – 1 per child
  • Measuring cup
  • Paint brushes – 1 per child
  • Plastic spoons – 1 per child
  • Large bowl
  • Newspaper – to cover tables

What To Do

Note: This activity involves creating an egg out of clay that will take up to a week to dry. The children will then use tools, similar to what a paleontologist uses, to open the eggs.

  1. Discuss information about paleontologists with the children (see "Did You Know?").
  2. Have the class measure each of the dry ingredients (flour, coffee grounds, sand, and salt) and place them in the large bowl.
  3. Let the children take turns mixing the ingredients with their hands.
  4. Measure the water.
  5. Gradually add the water to the bowl, stirring with hands until the mixture holds together.
  6. Give each of the children a clump of the dough mixture (approximately ¼ cup) and have them form it into the shape of an egg with one of the plastic dinosaurs in the middle.
  7. Allow up to a week for the eggs to air dry.
  8. Once dry, spread out newspaper on several tables. Seat a small group of children at each table and provide them with the tools you collected (paint brushes, sieves, spoons, wooden mallets, etc.).
  9. Encourage the children to use the variety of tools to gently open their fossilized eggs and examine what is inside.
  10. Explain how carefully and slowly paleontologists work. They are slow and careful so they do not damage any of the fragile items they find in the dirt or sand.

Guiding Student Inquiry

  • Who likes to dig in the sand or the dirt?
  • Paleontologists spend a lot of time carefully digging in the sand and dirt. What do you think they might be looking for? 
  • When you dig in the sand or dirt, do you find anything? Describe what you found.
  • What kind of tools do you use when you are digging? 
  • Have you ever seen dinosaur bones? Where did you see them? Do you know where they came from?

Explore, Extend & Integrate

  • Create other opportunities to practice the skills of paleontologists. Bury a variety of items (plastic bones, rocks, seashells, plastic animals, or plastic dinosaurs) in the sandbox or on the playground. 
  • Create a paleontology lab in your dramatic play area. Make lab coats from white T-shirts or white button down shirts with the sleeves cut shorter. Add magnifying glasses, paint brushes, plastic containers, and items for the children to examine. You could have rocks, shells, plastic animals, or bones from kitchen food items. Include pictures and maps.
  • In your art area, add similar ingredients to the ones used for creating the eggs and let the children make more eggs. When the eggs are dry, let the children bury them outdoors. Go on an expedition and excavate the eggs!

Check for Children’s Understanding

  • Was each child able to create a “dinosaur egg?”
  • Did each child use the tools to gently break apart the egg and “discover” the dinosaur inside?


Did You Know?

Paleontologists are people who use fossils to learn about past life forms. Fossils are the remains of life forms that lived long ago and that have over millions of years, been turned to stone. Both paleontologists and archeologists explore sites to learn about past history, but paleontologists are different from archeologists. Archeologists explore artifacts to learn about the history of other cultures and life styles while paleontologists explore fossils to learn about the history of life forms. Both archeologists and paleontologists study their findings and preserve them so other people can learn from them. During an excavation paleontologists use special tools to carefully remove fossils from their surroundings. They may use shovels, trowels, paintbrushes, or dental picks. Once a fossil is collected, the paleontologist will carefully study the item and then preserve it.

Dinosaurs were reptiles that lived through three periods of Earth's geologic history: Triassic (248–208 million years ago), Jurassic (208–146 million years ago), and Cretaceous (146–65 million years ago). Different species of dinosaurs flourished and then became extinct throughout these three periods. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth for more than 180 million years, and then they became extinct. Over 300 species of dinosaurs have been found. Dinosaur remains have been found on every continent, including Antarctica. All dinosaurs were reptiles, but not all reptiles were dinosaurs. Even though the name “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard,” dinosaurs were not lizards at all. They lived on land, and did not fly in the air or live in the water. All dinosaurs had four limbs. Some walked on all four limbs, others just walked on their two back legs. Dinosaurs had scaly skin and laid eggs.

Vocabulary: Child-Friendly Definitions

  • mold – a mold is usually made out of plastic and is hollow;  when you put something wet or soft like clay into a mold, the stuff hardens and takes the shape of the mold.
  • paleontologist – a person who learns about past life forms by digging up fossils of living things like dinosaur bones and studying them.
  • fossil – the remains or trace of a living animal or plant from a long time ago usually found embedded in earth or rock.
  • dig – to make a hole in the ground by removing dirt, sand or other materials often with a shovel.
  • egg – has a hard shell surrounding it; sometimes baby animals are inside the shell.
  • excavate – excavate means to uncover something by digging it up out of the ground.

Lesson Tips

  • This activity is messy and fun and filled with a variety of textures and smells. Many children will enjoy all of the sensory stimulation, but some children may not be comfortable. Provide these children extra time to get comfortable, or provide them with a way to participate without forcing them to be uncomfortable (such as providing gloves).
  • Coffee grounds can stain clothing. You may want the children to wear smocks.


  • Hunt for the Past (My Life as an Explorer) by Sue Hendrickson
  • Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs by Byron Barton
  • Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs by Sandra Boynton
  • Dinosaurs by Gail Gibbons
  • Dinosaur Roar by Paul and Henrietta Strick

Home School Resources

Home educators: use these printable lesson PDFs to teach this lesson to your home schoolers. They're available in English and Spanish.

Home/School Connections

Las Conexiones a la Casa

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Content Provided By

Common Core State Standards Initiative – These lessons are aligned with the Common Core State Standards ("CCSS"). The CCSS provide a consistent, clear understanding of the concepts and skills children are expected to learn and guide teachers to provide their students with opportunities to gain these important skills and foundational knowledge [1]. Visit the CCSS