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This article appeared in the July, 2002, issue of Chicago Parent.  The Chicago Parent Web site is here:  < http://www.chicagoparent.com/ >

Aaron's Treasures

How to nurture your child's urge to collect 
(without letting it drive you nuts)

by Eric D. Gyllenhaal  

It started early last spring as the snow finally melted, revealing the sparse grass of our neighbors' yards. Aaron's sharp, 4-year-old eyes soon discovered wonderful things littered on the sticky ground. He searched, selected and collected the best of them--bottle caps, broken bits of toys, lost barrettes, even a few coins--and stuffed them in the mesh pocket of his backpack. Then he brought them home and joyfully displayed them to his family.

"Treasures," he proclaimed, and so they were. Aaron's treasures became the latest passion in our collection-packed home.

Aaron accumulated a large cardboard box of treasures before the end of May. Five-year-old Ethan joined in the adventure, collecting seeds, rocks and bugs instead of human litter, but he'd always been a naturalist at heart.

I empathized. I understood their need to constantly scan the ground. I'm also a born naturalist and collector, having been raised in a nature center, trained in geology, and often employed in museums. I carried zippered plastic bags in my pockets and held them open so the boys could save their finds. My wife sighed, stuffed a few plastic bags in her pockets, and played along.

We'd been through this before. We first learned what kind of family we'd become when Ethan, at the age of 1, developed a passion for turtles. We visited live turtles at the zoo, searched for mounted turtles in natural history museums, borrowed turtle books from the library, and scanned videos and nature shows for brief glimpses of his favorite turtle, the "great big Alligator Snap." Soon there was a collection at the center of his passion. Ethan collected plastic turtles by the dozen, begging us to buy him more. Plastic turtles marched across Ethan's floor, ate whatever plastic worms he had to offer, and sloshed about in his bath.

Ethan has lived his way through many passions since then: dinosaurs, seeds, trains, shells, insects, Pokémon, rocks--then dinosaurs, insects, trains and Pokémon again. Each passion lasts four months or so, sometimes overlapping with the previous one, and each involves a collection: plastic dinosaurs, dried seeds, wooden trains, real shells, live and dead insects, Pokémon toys and cards, and boxes full of rocks. Ethan's bedroom looks like a museum storeroom because he never lets anything go.

Aaron's a collector, too, and a bit more steady in his interests. He discovered cars at age 2. By 4˝, he'd collected more than 400 toy cars and knew the name of each one of them. Cars were all Aaron wanted for birthdays, Hanukkah and grandparent visits; they were all he bought at garage sales and stores. Last spring Aaron's attentions finally focused on something new--trash--followed by an interest in trains that's about to enter its second year. Now Aaron's collection of wooden train cars and locomotives snakes across our floor, as Aaron narrates their adventures.  

Things my kids taught me

After 20 years in museums, I thought I knew about collecting. Then I had kids. Here's what they taught me.


Searching is half the fun. Sometimes it's when and where you search--the spring air and soft ground of your neighborhood, the hot sun and cool sands of an early summer beach, or the bins of bright polished stones in that special rock shop. Just being there is wonderful. And then there are the fantasies: Ethan's a paleontologist searching for dinosaur bones, or Aaron is a treasure-hunter seeking hidden gold. Anticipation builds as we round the corner, never knowing what we'll find.  


Sometimes the thrill of discovery is almost enough. That's the lesson from our treasury of trash. Aaron and Ethan enjoyed scouring the ground, snatching up their treasures and bragging about their finds. But once we got home, their treasures seemed to be forgotten, Aaron's treasure box sat in his room, but he never looked inside. Of course, when I tried to throw away his treasures, Aaron objected. He claims he still plans to use them someday.  


More often, ownership is an active pleasure. Keeping what you collect and knowing that you have it may seem like passive pleasures. But my kids' collections often are at the centers of their active lives. They sort their finds in different ways, sketch them, talk about them constantly, and pepper me with questions as they try to learn the names and stories of their specimens. And then they do the obvious childlike thing, the one my museum career never prepared me for: they play with their collections.  


Collections are for playing. Shells floating in the bathtub? Rocks buried in Play-Doh? Train cars filled with coffee beans? Adult instincts lean toward preservation, but kids play with their collections. I had to grit my teeth when Ethan's dead beetles met in Pokémon-style battles, but I stayed out of his way.  


Collections are never large enough. The more my kids learn, the more they want for their collections and the more specific their desires. They make lists of things they're missing and imagine what it will feel like to own them. Then they figure how to get them. Can they convince us to take them to the right collecting spot or store? How many lemonade stands will it take to earn enough money? And when's the next birthday?  


Collecting is a social activity. My kids love to show their collections to friends and relations. Collecting is at its best when their friends share their interests and they hunt, trade and play together. To help them make new friends, mom scours the stores for shirts that advertise their interests. Other people's reactions can underscore my kids' feelings and build their self-esteem--or sometimes undercut them, when showing off leads to sibling rivalry or jealousy among friends.  

The parents' role

Based on six years of experience and sample size of two, here's my advice for parents of young collectors.


Let them collect what they love. Sometimes I think the greatest thing we do for our kids is give them time and space to pursue their interests. If we can't (or won't) do anything else, at least we should stay out of their way. So Aaron got to collect his trashy treasures, and Ethan's candy wrapper collection is still growing after two years.  


Figure out your children's motivation. Why are your children collecting? What do they enjoy about the experience? Once you know what's driving your children's collecting interests, you can consider what support you can provide. Are they driven by the thrill of discovery? Then stuff your pockets with zippered bags to hold their finds. Do they take pleasure from ownership as well? Then help them safely store and display their treasures. Is collecting part of a larger, deeper passion? Then find resources and places that will help their passion grow, but don't try to force an interest if it isn't there.  


Find a place to put their collections. At the age of 3, Ethan started dumping all his finds in a cardboard carton, which he called his "collection collect." We've gotten more sophisticated since then. Now some of our favorite storage options are cardboard jewelry boxes (especially ones with clear plastic tops), plastic fishing-tackle boxes with lots of compartments, and anything with lots of tiny drawers. When collections really start to grow, we move them into large, plastic six-drawer cabinets, which we buy from office-supply stores for about $20.  


Bring home lots of books from the library. Libraries have been the center of our universe for the last six years. Their shelves are filled with books written by folks who share our passions. Even if your kids are young, be sure to visit the adult non-fiction section. Books for adults often have the most and best pictures.  My kids sprawl on the floor for hours studying picture books about their favorite things.  


Search online. Many passionate collectors build websites, often with photos and information you can't find elsewhere. And don't overlook commercial sites--Ethan learned about Neo Pokémon by studying cards displayed by online stores.  


Visit a museum, zoo or garden. Find a place with collections your children will enjoy. If they don't share the same passions, take them one at a time to the places best suited to each of them so that they can really study the exhibits. Keep in mind that looking at other people's collections is only part of the experience. The most anticipated and enduring part of the trip will be the visit to the gift shop. We've learned our lesson. We always go to the gift shop first.  


Collect nature in unnatural places. Collectors should avoid parks and preserves, where nature is protected. The best collecting spots may be your garden or lawn, abandoned fields, the overgrown edges of parking lots and roads, or the alley behind your house.  


Make your own collecting places. If your kids can't find the things they love near your home, why not bury them in your sandbox and let them dig? We call this "salting the sandbox" because dishonest miners used to "salt" their claims with gold to fool potential investors. Over the years we've salted our sandbox with shells, bones, fossils, seeds and polished rocks, depending on the interests of the moment. If you search online, you'll find places where you can buy these things in bulk.  


Go to the store. Our favorite stores over the years have included rock shops, which often have special shelves for kids; parent/teacher stores, which have great selections of plastic animals; and the local drug store, which has die-cast cars for less than a dollar.  


Never throw anything away. As my kids develop new interests, old ones fade, but ancient passions can reignite with a tiny spark. Then a quick trip to the basement or a search under the bed can uncover hours of enjoyment. Of course, some parents don't follow this rule, so trips to other folks' garage sales can be a cheap way to build your child's collections.  

Looking ahead

Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, my kids' current interests tell me about their futures.

Ethan is in first grade now, and his passion for Pokémon is bordering on obsession. If you don't like Pokémon, then you won't be coming to Ethan's birthday party, but if you are coming, just give him Neo Destiny Pokémon cards, please.

Ethan paces our yard, weaving complex stories where he battles other Pokémon trainers. Of course, he always wins. His reading skills are rapidly improving as he studies Pokémon cards, books and websites. His writing and drawing skills are growing as he makes cards for new Pokémon he invents. He learns the classification and unnatural history of Pokémon so quickly, it's tempting to think we have a future biologist on our hands, but he could just as easily become an artist or writer.

In his last year before kindergarten, Aaron no longer collects trash, but his love for trains is deepening and we're beginning to understand why this interest suits him. When we see a real train, Aaron treats it as a number line, counting each type of car and asking us to count the totals. He asks about speed, distance and duration, inventing concepts as he needs them: "Did that train just go a penny of a mile?"

Then Aaron comes home and relives his experiences with his wooden train collection. He assembles a train that's 92 cars long and breaks it in two. "What's 92 take away 10, Daddy?" It turns out he knows the answer. Trains are the perfect hobby for a boy who loves numbers.

Looking through a child development text, I discovered that kids' interests in collections peak in middle childhood. So I guess this is just the beginning.


In case you haven't figured out where our kids get their obsessive streak, you should visit their Dad's website. You'll find it at http://www.SaltTheSandbox.org

Eric D. Gyllenhaal is a museum consultant and the father of two boys. He lives in Oak Park.  

     Thanks to Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, former editor of Chicago Parent, for convincing
     me to write this article and for guiding me through the publication process!


Here are a few other resources that may interest you:

Storing Ethan's Collections is part of the Kids' Cicada Hunt! Web site.  Go 
here if you want to find out how we store Ethan's insect, shell, rock, and fossil 
collections.  This page also has links to other Web sites that show you how to 
find, collect, and care for many types of natural things.

More online articles about kids as collectors.  Young kids can be the most 
passionate of collectors.  That's my observation, and I've heard it confirmed 
informally from a variety of sources.  Here are some online articles about kids 
as collectors:
   < http://www.sesameworkshop.org/parents/advice/article/0,4125,1027-1-300,00.html >
   < http://flfl.essortment.com/collectablescol_rzzv.htm >

I also published an article about the ways in which children develop "islands of 
expertise" about their areas of interest.  Published in the September, 2002, issue 
of Chicago Parent, it's called, "Islands of expertise : Why do children become 
such specialists?
"  You can read it here
   < http://saltthesandbox.org/ChicagoParentArticle2.htm >

If you'd like to e-mail me, here's an address:  < Webmaster@SaltTheSandbox.org >

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Copyright 2002 Eric D. Gyllenhaal

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This page was created on June 24, 2002, and it was last updated on December 16, 2002.