How a Dragon Helped My 3-Year-Old Understand Internal Combustion Engines

Hideous Zippleback. Photo from HowToTrainYourDragon.com.

My daughter has loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon since the first time she watched it around 18 months old. Eventually I purchased the book The Art of How to Train Your Dragon so we could continue to adore the movie without necessarily watching it all the time. While it’s not a proper kids’ book, it’s made its way into our bedtime routine more often than not.

One dragon I’ve emphasized from the start is the Hideous Zippleback, the two-headed dragon with an ingenious skill. I’ve had my daughter memorize “one head makes flammable gas, the other makes a spark, together they make fire!” I didn’t really understand why it was so important to me, but I made her repeat it even when she hardly had the words to say it. I had a gut feeling it would come in handy.

Over the last two years of us owning the book, she came to understand the meaning behind the repeated words. Turns out that gut feeling was right, the seemingly simple dragon helped us facilitate conversations about gas stoves—they work the same way as the Hideous Zippleback!—and natural gas safety. Also lighters, gas fireplaces, barbecues, etc.

I thought that was definitively the end of the Hideous Zippleback’s usefulness, but this week my daughter made a statement about cars that made me realize she had no clue how they worked. How did they move? Boy, I can’t believe we’ve spent so much time in cars and never explained a single thing about them to her!

That’s when the Hideous Zippleback made its way back into yet another conversation about modern technology, this time internal combustion engines. Why, it’s like having a tiny Hideous Zippleback in a closed environment, the engine. The power of the explosion makes pistons moves up and down. Make it happen very very fast and the pistons can produce enough kinetic energy to move a car!

Granted it’s not the most detailed or scientific explanation, but keep in mind I’m talking to a 3-year-old. Now she’s very curious about car engines and I promised her we’d pop open the hood next weekend.

So thank you, Hideous Zippleback, for being the most useful dragon ever!

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Ariane is a programmer married to another programmer. Together they have two little girls who don't stand a chance against their nerdy lineage. Ariane can also be found writing about STEM travel at Geekling's Guide to the Galaxy.