Children get a prehistoric experience at Rock, Fossil and Dinosaur Shop in Deerfield

  • A student from Gardner-based Montachusett Opportunity Council's school age child holds up gemstones found at the Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield Thursday, July 20, 2017.

  • Students from Gardner-based Montachusett Opportunity Council's school age child care sift through sand looking for gemstones at the Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield Thursday, July 20, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Gina Cowley, owner of Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield, explains a simulated mining activity to students from Gardner-based Montachusetts Opportunity Council's school age child care Thursday, July 20, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • Westhampton Resident Cheryl Laprade helps granddaughter Melody sift for gemstones at Rock Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Routes 5 and 10 in Deerfield Thursday, July 20, 2017. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

  • The Rock, Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Routes 5 and 10 in South Deerfield. Recorder Staff/Andy Castillo—

Recorder Staff
Published: 7/20/2017 7:19:52 PM

Editor’s note: Names of children have intentionally been withheld.

SOUTH DEERFIELD — “I’m not getting up until I find something good,” announced one youngster Thursday while sifting through sand at The Rock, Fossil and Dinosaur Shop on Greenfield Road.

Six students used shovels and screens to search for gemstones and other treasures behind the roadside building. They were among youths ages 6 through 9 who took a field trip that day with the Gardner Montachusett Opportunity Council’s child care program.

“I have been a first-grade teacher for 28 years. This is all ‘teaching 101,’” said Gina Cowley, who purchased the business with her husband, Peter.

Cowley, who has a master’s in education and other advanced degrees, spent 20 years as a manager at Smith College’s campus school.

In that time, she visited the dinosaur shop a few times, saw potential and was inspired to purchase it. The shop was first opened on Routes 5 and 10 in 2002 by George Marchacos, who had said he mined for gemstones as far west as Arizona, in an old farm stand covering an acre and a half. Since then, the business has been expanded a few times, receiving a facelift in 2013.

Cowley purchased the business in July 2015, according to town records.

“I could really see myself here. So I kept pestering George to think about selling it to me,” she said. “There were all these fun activities but there wasn’t context. You go panning, you go mining, you go digging. The dinosaurs were just there. I’ve tried to bring context to the activities by providing a little bit of information. Not too much, but a little bit, which will help kids remember.”

When the 21 students arrived Thursday, Cowley gave a brief overview of the region’s history and showed them a fossilized footprint of a coelophysis dinosaur. Then, they split off into groups for activities including gemstone panning (washing dirt away to find gemstones), sluicing, digging, sifting and exploring simulated mine shafts with headlamp equipped hard hats. Students took home everything they found.

“They learn more hands-on. They remember more, and they talk about it for a long time,” said Joan Hotchkiss, the group’s leader. The experience culminated two weeks of dinosaur study for the students, she said.

Educational approach

From the road, the shop looks deceptively small. Through the doors, however, visitors enter a lush replication of prehistoric life, which engages in multiple ways. Cowley applied a “multimodal” learning approach to the experience.

After closing for renovations and upgrades over the winter, which included informational signs in front of the shop’s 25 static dinosaurs and loudspeakers that play prehistoric wilderness sounds on repeat, the shop reopened in May.

Cowley said her approach to teaching is to give youth multiple ways into learning.

“They’re digging, they’re reading, they’re listening. They have lots of opportunities for different modalities (of learning),” she said.

Looking ahead, Cowley wants to create a walkway through the dinosaurs — “a prehistoric walkway,” and start a story hour. Soon, she intends to bring in chickens as an educational tool to “think more about the connection between birds and dinosaurs.”

The Rock, Fossil and Dinosaur Shop can be found at 213 Greenfield Road. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays; 10 to 4 weekends. For more information, visit rockfossildinosaur.com. Or, call 413-665-7625.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo


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