DIY Dino Land
A couple of months ago I came across a great activity for my kids to do! It was shortly after COVID-19 hit Utah and the schools closed. Looking for things to keep my two young boys busy, I happened upon a set of Dinosaur "Dig it up!" Eggs at Walmart. I could not find the same set again browsing online, but our set of 12 was very similar to this one from Amazon.
These kits are really neat because they come with 12 different dinosaurs, along with a little pamphlet that describes each one. I used this as a weekly activity, giving them each an egg to break apart every Wednesday. Between theirs and mine (of course I wanted to do it too), it took us a month to get through them all.
While we sat there breaking away at our dinosaur eggs, we discussed how cool it would be to create a little world of their own, complete with water for the Plesiosaurus and a cliff nest for the Pteranodon. We agreed that once all the dinosaurs were "hatched", that would be our next project!
It took us another month to complete the dinosaurs' home, and now I'd like to share it with you! Below you'll find a step-by-step guide for creating a truly unique dinosaur world. Because I am an art-supply-hoarder, I ended up spending less than $25 on our Dino Land (plus another $20-$30 on the dinosaurs - I can't remember exactly how much). If you don't have a lot of these items on hand, this could easily become a costly project. I recommend keeping it small and seeing how your kids like it before going bigger, and drawing the project out over several weeks to make it more about the creation process than the end result.
Step 1 - Designing Our Land
Estimated time: 30 minutes
We began our project by first designing what we envisioned it looking like. I didn't keep our original drawings unfortunately, but thinking things through and having some plans written down is a good idea when beginning any large project. My five-year old, three-year old and I had a very serious discussion about our design ;).
We talked about what dinosaur toys we had, what type of food each of them would require, what kind of land they might prefer, and where and how we could realistically build the land.
To kill a little more time, I had the boys color their plans, then I drew a final design using elements from both of their drawings and descriptions - so that both would feel like they contributed to the final design.
Step 2 - Finding A Container
Estimated time: 30-60 minutes
Plastic Container (more wide than deep)
I knew that I wanted this project to be created within a container that could be lidded and put away, perhaps in a closet or under a bed. I found a wide but shallow container I already had and emptied the contents (sorry picture frames, you'll have to go elsewhere).
I recommend starting with your container and designing your land to fit it. We chose a shallow container because I thought it would be easier for them to reach the insides than one that was deeper. It also allowed for more surface area for our building. Our container ended up being about 29"x17.5"x5.5".
Because I wasn't sure how successful our Dinosaur Land would be, I didn't want to ruin a perfectly good container for the project. We decided to cut apart a cardboard box and make our own box within the container. This was a little tricky, but with patience and a lot of tape, we were able to cover the inside of our container with cardboard. If we ever wanted to, we could pull our whole land out by the cardboard - you know, in case I need to repurpose this rubbermaid for yet another project.
Step 3 - Creating Our Foundation
Estimated time: 30 minutes
I already planned on creating a special dough to create the land, but I didn't want to waste my dough supplies by filling the entire bottom with several inches of it. The best idea I could come up with (and please let me know if you think of something better!) was to form the foundation out of styrofoam first, then cover this with my dough.
For the size of container I was using, these foam boards worked out perfectly. Most of them fit snuggly side -by-side along the bottom of the box. We had a few extras that we stacked on top, trimming away at the edges to make a more gradual hill. I hot glued the stacked pieces in place so they wouldn't move around as we covered the foam in the next step.
Finally, we cut out a small section of the foam to fit a tupperware we would be using as the "lake". I didn't want the lake to sit on the ground, but rather more realistically in the ground.
Step 4 - Covering Our Foundation
Estimated time: 30-45 minutes at a time, roughly 1 week to completion
Mud Dough (recipe below. I ended up tripling it)
For the "ground" of our land, I made one of my favorite types of homemade doughs - Mud Dough. This dough is made with actual soil and dries hard, yet mud-like - perfect for a ground-look! A salt dough recipe would also probably work, or a number of other options, but here is the recipe and instructions for the mud dough we used:
4 c clean soil (straight from the bag. I recommend untreated/organic to avoid chemicals)
2 c cornstarch
3 c cold water
In addition, you will also need a large pot to mix the dough on the stove and a spoon to stir it.
Mix all ingredients into a large pot. Turn the burner to medium and continue to stir as the mixture thickens. Remove from heat once the dough is formable and difficult to mix with the spoon. Let it sit for 10 minutes to cool and continue to thicken.
We found it helpful to coat our hands with more cornstarch as we worked to keep it from sticking. If it is still too sticky, continue kneading in cornstarch until it is easier to use.
Covering Our Foundation
We ended up repeating the recipe three times over a week until the entire surface was covered in the dough. It will crack as it dries, so some areas may need another thin layer of dough to hide the foam beneath it. My son decided to add a small wall by the cliff, just for fun. We also found that we could build up and out with the dough a little bit before it would collapse, allowing me to form a second cave and the Pteranodon nest (not pictured here).
After covering the foam, we stuck trees into the dough and foam so they would dry in place. We were also careful to use trees that were short enough to stay below the sides of the container so the lid would still close. I found my trees here, because I liked the size and variety. I saw several options online though, so take a look and pick your favorite!
We were also careful to leave a hole open for the "lake" to be placed into. When all the mud dough was down, we placed the lake into the hole to make sure it still fit.
See below for alternative options for trees!
Step 5 - Embellishments
Estimated time: 30-60 minutes
Whatever you can find!
(Pebbles, gems, sand, moss, fake grass, twigs, leaves, loose dirt, etc)
Craft glue or hot glue
This was by far my favorite part of the project! After collecting rocks, gems, and moss we already had, we laid everything out in as we liked, creating "streams" of clear gems, trails of lava with lava rocks, paths of pebbles, and patches of moss and sand. When we liked where things were placed, we used craft glue to glue everything down. Hot glue would also work, but I wanted their help with this part.
We also added some larger "boulders" and a ceramic volcano that we had from another science project.
If this is an area you would like to save money, I recommend fining tidbits from nature to add to your land. Small branches from trees, pieces of bark, seedpods, and other interesting findings could really add to the uniqueness of your creation. Just be sure to remove leaves, flowers, and other "live" plant material before they begin to decay. The key is contrast! Shoot for at least three different textures and colors when decorating the surface of the land.
Step 6 - Final Touches
Estimated time: 30-60
Acrylic paint (blue and white)
Acrylic spray seal
Tupperware you don't mind dedicating to the cause
The final steps were painting the walls of cardboard still showing and painting the backside of our tupperware lake. Because acrylic paint would chip off of the plastic, I sprayed the painted container with a spray seal a few times. We threw the rest of our gems into the lake and it was finished!
One of my kid's favorite features of our Dinosaur Land is the removable lake, which allows them to add water when they are playing and dump it before storing. The volcano on the "mountain" sits higher than the side of the container, so instead of gluing it down, we made it removable too. During storage, the volcano sits inside the empty lake so the lid can close all the way. I like to give the lake and surrounding area (splash zone) a day or two to dry all the way before I shut the lid, to avoid growing mold or smelling funky.
Now it's ready for play!
The finished project
If you give this project a try, be sure to take pictures and share your creation with me!