Kids dig learning at The Mammoth Site
I’m eyeing three large piles of sandy dirt inside the new Education Program Building at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. No, they are not some horrendous error on the part of the construction crew. Soon, groups of kids will be playing in these giant sandboxes – the kind of play that creates learning experiences that can last a lifetime.
There is something uniquely appealing about digging for “buried treasure.” Kids do it, and so do adults. On the beach looking for seashells, ambling around an urban park with a metal detector, even forking up a potato patch – it’s a chance to win a lottery created by Mother Nature. The anticipation starts to build even before you begin. Your imagination gets fired up; you get a heightened sense of alertness and your mind opens up to a wide range of possibilities. There’s just no telling what you might find!
It’s a mental combination particularly suited for learning – and one that makes the popular educational programs at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs so successful.
The new 2,916-square-foot facility will allow the world-renowned mammoth research center to pretty much double its Jr. Paleontology, Advanced Paleontology and Atlatl youth educational offerings, with a summer schedule that begins June 1 and runs through Aug. 15. The Jr. Paleontology class, for ages 4-12, is a simulated excavation where participants dig up replicated bones. Kids learn excavation techniques, how to identify various fossils and also tour the museum. In the advanced class, for ages over 13, kids learn how to map and jacket a bone. The Atlatl Throwing Experience is also for the over 13 crowd – and teaches the history, types and throwing techniques of this Ice Age hunting spear.
Back in the Mammoth Site gift shop, I spend a few minutes talking with a staff member named Ashley, who, at age 7, discovered her life’s calling while playing in the Mammoth Site’s sandbox. Now a veteran employee, Ashley will graduate in two years with a PhD in Invertebrate Paleontology from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City. Her childhood visit was an “aha” moment. She remembers telling her mother – who doubted her then but must be proud now – that she was going to be a paleontologist when she grew up.
The Mammoth Site’s educational attraction extends to educators themselves. Teachers from across the nation who are vacationing in the area are often delighted to discover that the museum provides lesson plans and the necessary supplies for “hands-on” learning sessions in their classrooms. Plus, the museum is involved in a “distance-learning” program that allows for even more outreach.
Of course, it’s mammoths – the very large Columbian and woolly mammoths that were trapped and died more than 26,000 years ago in a spring-fed pond near Hot Springs – that most visitors are excited about seeing. The learning part slowly unfolds as they enjoy close-up views of the in-situ exhibit of mammoth fossils and the many other displays.
And with a brand new display, visitors can add a little bit of loving to their learning. Lyuba is a replica of a baby mammoth from Siberia, beautifully and tenderly created by Remie Bakker, a sculptor from Norway. Almost perfectly preserved, the one-month-old Lyuba was found frozen beneath wet clay and mud along a riverbank in northwestern Siberia – a splendid example of digging and discovering a “buried treasure.”