Finding Magic in Prehistory – From the Big Bang to the Quaternary Period

This piece is written and photographed by Dani Johnston and originally published in Issue Three of the Secular Homeschooler literary journal. There are affiliate links within this post, which means that we earn a very small percentage of sales made through the links at no extra cost to you. (Thanks for supporting the site!)

Tonight we made cave paintings.

We started off reading a few pages out of Prehistoric Art by Susie Hodge. Then we took berries, spinach, turmeric, flour, and dirt, and created a joyful mess-making our own paints. After our paints were mixed, we piled up papers on poster board to create thick, lumpy cave walls. Then we covered them with gray craft paint and let them dry. While they dried we went over a few vocabulary words: archeology, Australopithecus, Homohabilis, Homo erectus. Then, using sticks and their fingers, my daughters painted on their cave walls, all while discussing the difficulties of using sticks to paint, how there weren’t sabre tooth tigers (they were actually sabre tooth cats, or rather, Smilodon), and why the paint made from dirt definitely looked the most authentic.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly why I picked prehistory. It’s definitely a subject that could wait a few years, and like most our science or history topics, I’m sure we’ll be circling back around to it at some point when they’re older.

I knew that I wanted to start adding some history into our studies each week. And I figured, why not start at the beginning. I didn’t even really know what that meant, but I knew my six- and seven-year-old liked dinosaurs, so if we could get through the first couple weeks of our study to the part where we were discussing Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, we’d be golden.

Initially, I was a bit worried. Would it be too dry? Would it be just too huge a concept to try and teach right now? Would they be bored while reading about blue-green algae and stromatolites? Would the millions and millions of years of the past truly make any sense to them? I was unsure in the beginning. We took the first week and a half of lessons very slowly. I think it took us at least a month.

Once we got rolling with it though, it was absolutely one of the best decisions I’d made for our homeschool so far. Studying prehistory introduced a new sort of wonder and awe into my children, the sort that only the past can provide. It even introduced a new magic. My family loved fairytales, poetry, studying the phases of the moon, sketching cardinals in the snow, all those typically magical childhood things. But these past few weeks, we have found new magic in the Big Bang theory, wonder in primordial soup and Hallucigenia, awe at Diatryma and Mammoths, admiration for prehistoric paintings on cave walls in what is now France. I could go on and on. This was no accidental homeschool euphoria, the kind that can be stirred up by any topic. I truly believe it’s a euphoria unique to learning about the origins of the earth, the theory of evolution and our human ancestors, and just how far this whole planet has come.

When I pulled together the right materials, the right picture books, the right documentaries, and the right projects, we stumbled into the magic that is the past, and the realization that we’re part of something so completely wonderful, old, and fleeting. What I love the most is that we were able to learn these things without reaching for a religious or spiritual text, that my little secular family could feel these things simply by studying the history of planet Earth. Trying to fit all of these years into our brains took us all outside of ourselves.

We got lucky that recently two local museums hosted temporary exhibits all about prehistoric creatures. One was on ancient, savage sea creatures that are thought to have lived in our area and the other all about the time of the dinosaurs. Those really sealed the deal for me. Watching my children’s amazement made my homeschooling heart burst. We got to see these creatures either fossilized or replicated as they may have been, right in front of us, what had previously only been in books and on video. Then they started identifying things. They started telling each other facts about each creature. They started talking about them with the other adults around them. You could have knocked my proud self over with a feather. They discussed Megalodons with a paleontologist. They held the fossilized horn of a baby Triceratops. Their brains were making connections. This is what they had been learning, what we’d been talking about these past few weeks. It was amazing to see it all right in front of us.

We now have a homemade timeline hanging on our wall. Starting with the Big Bang all the way up to the Quaternary Period, in the Cenozoic Era. My children proudly show off this work every time anyone comes over. My oldest wants to make it into a book once we’re ready to move on to ancient history. The girls have loved working on each page – their faces light up at their work and I see it. They’re inspired and they’re curious simply about the existence of life itself.

The Unit Study We Used:

Build Your Library’s Prehistory Unit Study

I edited this to fit our family and I highly recommend to anyone to do the same. Once I got comfortable changing things around to suit our needs, it flowed really well.

Books We Loved:

Documentaries and other media:

  • Planet Dinoaur
  • Magic School Bus on Netflix – The Busasaurus
  • Walking with Prehistoric Beasts
  • PBS Eons on Youtube
  • Sci Show Kids on Youtube: Where did Earth Come From?
  • Create Your Own Asteroid Impact!
  • Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!
  • Solving Mysteries with Archaeologists!



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