How to Build a Dino-Terrarium, According to a Paleontologist

Make your own miniature Jurassic world in this educational kids project.

dinosaur terrarium
Photo: "Tiny Dino Worlds" by Christine Bayles Kortsch © 2020 Christine Bayles Kortsch. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Editor's Note: This project is from "Tiny Dino Worlds" by Christine Bayles Kortsch © 2020 Christine Bayles Kortsch. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Imagine a warm jungle woodland full of lush flowers and buzzing insects. Have you ever visited the coast of Louisiana or other southern states? That's probably similar to how our Cretaceous forest would have looked. In this project, you'll build a cliffside Cretaceous hideaway for the three-horned giant, the Triceratops. But watch out! The mighty Tyrannosaurus rex lurks behind a boulder, ready to attack. The plant-eating Triceratops and massive T. rex were fierce enemies. These dinosaurs roamed over woodland terrain during the Late Cretaceous. Remember that before the Cretaceous Period, there were few—if any—flowers on Earth. Have fun picking out flowering plants for your dino world. Then set up a cliffside battle scene for your hungry T. rex and the big-headed Triceratops.

Tip: Before watering or misting your plants, brush any dirt off the glass or the leaves of the plants. You can buy stylish terrarium tools at specialty garden centers, but a dry, thick, soft paintbrush works just as well.

Materials & Tools

  • 1 Wardian case, glass terrarium house, or clear container with high sides and a lid
  • Pea gravel, aquarium gravel, or small pebbles Activated charcoal
  • Perlite
  • Potting soil
  • 1 to 3 large rocks, plus some medium-sized stones, to make a cliff
  • 1 to 3 miniature plants with flowers
  • 1 or 2 live moss plants, such as delicate fern or pincushion moss (optional)
  • Decorations of your choice: decorative gravel, rocks, preserved moss, sand, minerals, gems, coprolites, tiny pebbles, sticks, seedlings, pine cones
  • Blue stones, blue clay, blue salt dough, or blue slime, to make a water feature (optional)
  • Toy dinosaurs, miniature size

Plant Picks

Tropical plants are perfect for this dino world. Have you ever seen a sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica)? If you haven't, you must find one. Touch the leaves and they curl in on themselves! A tiny African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha), miniature calla lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), or miniature orchid (there are many varieties) adds drama and elegance. Try a purple or green miniature shamrock (Oxalis regnellii). This lucky plant resembles a tiny ginkgo, but with the added benefit that it blooms with tiny white flowers (remember, the Late Cretaceous is all about flowers). Don't forget all the Triassic and Jurassic look-alikes such as ferns, mosses, horsetail, and cycads, as those were still around during the Cretaceous Period. Miniature tropicals are found in the terrarium or fairy garden section of your local garden center. You can find larger specimens at big-box garden centers too. Just make sure your chosen plants share similar light and moisture needs.


Wash your container with soap and hot water until it is sparkling clean. Allow to dry. Pour a 1-inch layer of gravel into the container. Top the gravel with a sprinkle of activated charcoal, followed by a band of perlite to keep the layers distinct. Finish with a layer of potting soil.

Use larger rocks and medium stones to create a cliff or small mountain terrace. Keep checking out the layers from the side to make sure you like how it looks. Whether you're aiming for a jagged cliff or small terrace, it's a good idea to use larger stones to build a firm foundation. Pea gravel will slip but rocks or chunky pebbles will hold firm. Keep in mind that once you add water to your terrarium, gravity will pull everything down. So if you want a hill or canyon, make your foundation layer steeper than you think you should.

Pop your plants out of their plastic liners and play around until you find the right arrangement. Dig holes in the soil layer and tuck in the plants. Sprinkle more soil around the roots, pushing down gently with your fingers to hold the plants in place. Add more soil until it reaches the base of the plants. If desired, place live moss on top of the soil layer, pressing gently. Add another layer of decorative gravel or tiny stones, if desired.

What kind of background would look exciting for your cliffside battle? A cave or den? Some plants to hide behind? A fallen log to escape an attack? A gushing waterfall or pool? A crystal or sparkly gem? Once your background is arranged, set your dinosaurs up for battle.

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