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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/
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.
he proclaimed, and so they were. Aaron's treasures became the latest passion in
our collection-packed home.
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.
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
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.
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
After 20 years
in museums, I thought I knew about collecting. Then I had kids. Here's what they
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.
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.
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
Based on six
years of experience and sample size of two, here's my advice for parents of
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
wonder what, if anything, my kids' current interests tell me about their
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
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?"
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
Gyllenhaal is a museum consultant and the father of two boys. He lives in Oak
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:
Ethan's Collections is part of the Kids' Cicada Hunt! Web
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
< 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
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
|About this Site||Why "Salt the Sandbox"?||Search this Site||For Parents||For Teachers||For Home Schoolers||Home|
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.