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

Islands of Expertise

Why do children become such specialists?

by Eric D. Gyllenhaal  

Sometimes a visit to a museum can change your life. I'd like to think this was one of those times.

As we walked into the Field Museum's temporary exhibit, Ethan was both amazed and a bit frightened by the first thing we saw: a life-sized, moving dinosaur standing over a nest of babies. It was a few days after his second birthday, so Ethan may have thought they were real. The mother dinosaur looked up, stared past us, and then swung away. The babies popped up, whirred and chattered. Ethan climbed into my arms and wouldn't leave.

We watched, worried, counted the babies, and talked about how Maiasaura, the "good mother lizard," chewed up big, tough leaves, then spat them out so her babies could fit them in their tiny mouths. "They don't drink milk from Mommy, like baby Aaron. She feeds them, but it's different."

We might have stayed in Dinosaur Families for hours, but then Ethan saw the towering, moving model of Albertasaurus (a slightly smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex), and we couldn't leave soon enough. We did stop in the exhibit's gift shop, however, where Ethan selected a plastic Maiasaura and her nest, with two hungry-looking babies molded in place.

After we got home, Ethan pulled a leaf off of a potted plant, tore it into pieces, and fed it to his baby maiasaurs. This was the first sign that our lives were changing.

A few days later, during our weekly visit to the library, Ethan found two books about dinosaurs and insisted that we bring them home. The following week we borrowed more dinosaur books, and within a month, dinosaur books were the only ones Ethan wanted to borrow and the only ones we really read.

Like the little boy in his favorite storybook, Patrick's Dinosaurs, the more dinosaur names Ethan learned, the more kinds of dinosaurs he saw around the neighborhood. On our daily walks, he picked up leaves and sticks and dragged them home. He stacked them in piles--feeding sites for dinosaurs--on our front sidewalk and behind our house. Three-horned Triceratops came to eat his front-yard offerings of plants, plated Stegosaurus munched on plants by the back porch, and tiny Compsognathus hunted for bugs in our garden. He was developing an island of expertise.

Why islands matter

"Islands of expertise" is a term coined by Kevin Crowley, Ph.D., an educational researcher at University of Pittsburgh who studies the ways that children and parents learn together in museums ( http://www.kevincrowley.com ). It refers to the areas of relatively deep and rich knowledge children develop when they are passionately interested in something like dinosaurs, Pokémon, rocks, turtles and other things. These islands emerge over weeks or months as children talk, read and learn about their passions.

On their islands of expertise, children remember, reason and explain in more advanced ways than they usually do when submerged in the wider sea of knowledge. Even preschoolers can think more like an expert does, which is very different from a beginner's approach to the subject. I guess you could also say they think more like an adult, growing up faster on their island than in the rest of their lives. (Just the opposite of Peter Pan.)

Crowley emphasizes that children aren't alone on their islands. They build and inhabit them with their parents through the things they do together every day. Preschoolers especially need their parents' help; if nobody reads them dinosaur books, explains what they see in dinosaur videos, or answers their questions about dinosaurs, preschool children will be starved of the information they need to build their islands.

How islands grow

I like the metaphor of the island, but I especially like what Crowley says about the roles that parents play in their formation:


Everyday encouragement. Crowley says most of the shared learning takes place in everyday settings, such as during dinner, on a walk to the park, or at bedtime. There are small, unremarkable moments of practicing, remembering, and exploring.

Since Ethan talked about dinosaurs all the time and everywhere we went, that's the way it had to be. At dinner, carnivorous Ethan would always eat his meat, and herbivorous Ethan would sometimes eat his vegetables as well. On walks, we'd count the toes of footprints in the sidewalk (hoping they were dinosaurs, not birds). At bedtime, we told stories, weaving fantastic tales in which the dinosaurs were as real as we could make them.


Spontaneous learning. On islands of expertise, the learning isn't planned and programmed. A child or parent notices something and asks a question, and the island grows.

By asking questions, Ethan took the lead, so there was really little chance for parental planning. Look at that plant. What dinosaur would eat it? Could Triceratops run as fast as dog?  Was T. rex a good daddy? When Ethan asked a question, we did our best to find an answer, checking a book or website when we didn't know.


Talking and exploring. By talking and examining the evidence, parents shape the ways their children think. Crowley points to research by scientists who've studied family conversations. Around the dinner table, they found families making theories about everyday happenings and stating evidence in support, only to have their interpretations challenged. Between mouthfuls, young experts learned to argue like scholars.

By the age of three or four, Ethan was winning many of his arguments with Dad. (My excuse was that he had more time to study.)


Simple explanations. Don't know the answer to that question? It's OK if parental explanations are simple and incomplete. The important thing is that parents talk about causes, offer simple analogies, define a new word, or suggest ways to think about the evidence.

Crowley calls these partial explanations "explanatoids." Because they accumulate over time, they can be just what it takes to launch a child to a higher level of understanding. If I'd known then the value of an off-hand explanation, I wouldn't have felt so guilty about what I didn't know or have the time to explain.


Links to what they know. Perhaps the most important kind of explanation takes place when a parent connects  something new to what a child already knows. Crowley and a coworker studied families talking about fossils in a museum. They found that beyond just saying what the fossil was, the best way for parents to support their children's learning was to help them remember what they'd learned before from books, computer games or life.

When I compared mommy Maiasaura spitting out chewed food to Ethan's Mommy nursing, I helped Ethan build a better understanding of both ways to feed a baby.


Increasingly sophisticated conversations. Because of their growing island of shared knowledge, parents and child can talk in ever more sophisticated ways about the subject. Parents can explain at deeper levels because they trust their child will understand.

Ethan and I were talking about dinosaur digestion and mating habits long before he understood how these processes might relate to himself and his parents.

Do islands last?

When you think about it, what parents can do to nourish children's islands of expertise doesn't seem that special. They listen and talk about their children's interests, answer questions, read books, and visit museums and websites. But all these small efforts enable their child to think about at least one part of the world in new and deeper ways--at least until they develop new interests.

Those of us who live with children who develop elaborate islands of expertise may find them amusing, impressive or even engaging, but what's the point? Why should we encourage them?

In answer to this question, and with scientific caution, Crowley writes: "Even when a child loses interest and an island of expertise begins to fade, the abstract and general themes that used the island's rich knowledge as a launching pad will remain connected to children's other knowledge."

With less caution, I'll claim that being an expert in one part of the world gives children confidence in their own intelligence, and that learning expert ways of thinking shapes the ways their minds will work as they conquer new worlds of knowledge.

Building on the islands

Crowley's ideas explain a lot about Ethan's immersion in dinosaurs and the relationship we share. But as I've watched Ethan's islands of expertise emerge over the years, I've had to expand on Crowley's ideas. I've found:


Some kids build lots of islands. Ethan started out building new islands of expertise every six months or so, and now he often revisits his old islands. Turtle Island started at 18 months of age. Dinosaur Island at age two. At two-and-a-half, Ethan built Train Island and then returned to Dinosaur Island. Then, in succession, Ethan worked on islands of bugs, Pokémon, rocks, bugs again, Pokémon again, gems, dinosaurs again, and so on.

Ethan has built an archipelago of expertise over the last six years. Now he visits his islands once a year or so--for one or two months at a time--shoring up eroding knowledge and adding new and higher ground as his abilities and interests grow. 


Some kids only build a few. Ethan's younger brother, Aaron, has a different style. His first island, begun at age two, was built of cars. Over two and a half years, it grew to the size of a small continent. At age four and a half, Aaron abandoned his continent of cars, never to return. (He even sold most his toy cars at a garage sale!) For more than a year now, Aaron's been working on an ever-growing island of trains.


Some interests aren't about expertise. When Aaron turned his attention to dinosaurs, it had nothing to do with expertise or a desire to learn all their names. He needed to act out family issues, and (in his imaginary world) cars couldn't have babies of their own. So big daddy T. rex had an ever growing, multi-species family of tiny plastic babies to watch over and protect. Aaron said, "He's a good Daddy. He doesn't eat his babies," and I was left to wonder what was really on his mind.


As kids grow, parents' roles change. Now that Ethan reads, he's more apt to leave his parents behind when he visits his islands of expertise. Some nights we still read dinosaur books as Ethan lies in bed, but he'll often kick us out so he can study on his own. If we're lucky, we'll find him sleeping on an open book 15 minutes later. Over time, we spend less time as active participants and more as an appreciative audience as Ethan tells us what he's learned.


Expertise is not the only outcome. It's nice to know a lot, but children's interests help them develop skills as well as knowledge. Both our kids face challenges with fine-motor skills, but their interests have inspired them to print and draw with joy. It doesn't even seem like practice when it's about something you love.

Islands and imagination

Crowley studies families learning factual knowledge in museums, so his theory about roles of islands of expertise is limited to intellectual development and the accumulation of knowledge. But even when they're experts, kids still learn like kids. In my experience, children's imaginations, play and fantasy worlds also help develop their islands of expertise. And parents can contribute to those aspects of their kids' lives.

I remember the time four-year-old Ethan stopped me as we left the library, opened his new book, and asked me to read about each dinosaur. After each name, he pretended he was that dinosaur, acting out its posture, movements and habits.

I remember the time we parked by the railroad tracks so Aaron could watch trains pass. Five-year-old Ethan was bored, of course, so he imagined our car was the Magic School Bus turned into a time machine and going back in time. Like his Magic School Bus computer game, he first went to Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic times. But, with Daddy's help, he kept going back in time, past the Coal Age and the Time of First Animals until he reached the Time of First Life.

And I remember this past spring, when seven-year-old Ethan emerged from a six-month passion for Pokémon and renewed his interest in dinosaurs. He put his Pokémon cards aside and made his own prehistory cards, with sketches of each dinosaur and elaborate listings of their statistics, habitats and habits, as well as the special powers that they used when he sent them into battle. (Now that he's older, raptors and other meat-eaters fascinate Ethan, and his play includes much more attacking, fighting and eating of prey.)

Would Ethan know so much about the past if he hadn't lived there in his imagination? I doubt it. To imagine the past, you need a thousand bits of knowledge. But what paleontologists know about the past is as much about imagination as it is about fossils extracted from rocks. Imagination assembles all the pieces, replaces what's missing, and explains and finds meaning in otherwise lost worlds.

I'm glad that Ethan has both imagination and knowledge, and I enjoy watching how they feed off each another. I love listening to his stories about real dinosaurs at imaginary Golpher Lake as much as I love helping him build his Dinosaur Island by playing a T. rex attacked by small dinosaurs with killer claws.

Did that visit to the Field Museum really change our lives? Or was it just another one of those everyday moments that help parents and their kids construct their islands of expertise? 

Kevin Crowley suggests that things children learn on museum visits may be easier to remember because they are strongly linked to the special places where they were learned. Ask, "Remember when we saw the mommy Maiasaura feeding her babies at the Field Museum?" and kids recall. Ask, "Remember that time we were sitting around the dinner table talking about how mommy dinosaurs fed their babies?" and you may get puzzled looks. (Unless someone spit out a mouthful of food, which, come to think of it, isn't all that exceptional in our house.)

So maybe that visit to the museum didn't change our lives any more than a thousand other mundane moments. Maybe I just remember because it took place in a museum.

I guess the important thing is that we did it together.

Eric Gyllenhaal has a PhD in paleontology from the University of Chicago. He's currently a stay-at-home dad and a part-time museum consultant. Visit his Web site to find out more about Ethan's dinosaurs and his family's islands of expertise: http://www.SaltTheSandbox.org

Encouraging islands [sidebar]

Here are some things my wife and I have done that may have nurtured Ethan's powers of imagination. They can be tailored to any child's interests:


Plastic dinosaurs. We bought him plastic dinosaurs--lots and lots of plastic dinosaurs. They came in many types and many sizes, so he could play with them in many different ways. He learned each one's name and habits, and he recognized them in books and museums.


Imaginary worlds. We spread a blue sheet on the floor to make an ancient ocean where his plastic reptiles could swim, and stacked our big red blocks to make prehistoric mountains where his plastic dinosaurs could climb. And when earthshakes destroyed it all, we built it up again.


Storybooks. We slipped a few fictional stories about dinosaurs into the stack of non-fiction books that Ethan selected on his own. We took home all three Patrick's Dinosaurs books, Danny and the Dinosaur and many other books in which kids and dinosaurs coexist.


Multimedia. We watched and explained Land Before Time videos, listened to Wee Sing Dinosaurs and "When I Was a Dinosaur," by Trout Fishing in America, and played Magic School Bus Dinosaurs on the computer (until he told us to leave so he could do it himself).


Fantasy play. We played T. rex to his Triceratops and, when that got too scary, daddy or mommy T. rex to his baby T. rex.


Bedtime stories. We told dinosaur stories at bedtime, making them up as we went along. That's not as hard as it seems, because Ethan insisted we retell each story at least 100 times. In Mommy's stories, Ethan and his friends visited Dinosaur Forest to meet the friendly dinosaurs and Ethan often saved the day when a hungry meat-eater attacked. In Daddy's stories, Ethan and his friends became friendly dinosaurs by drinking small bottles of dinosaur juice purchased at the teacher store. We saw our stories enacted when Ethan played with his plastic dinosaurs during the day.

And of course, we took him to museums.

Thanks to Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, former editor of Chicago Parent, for 
asking me to write this article and for deftly editing the results.

Here are a few other resources that may interest you:

To learn more about the research on islands of expertise, visit Kevin Crowley's
Web site at: < http://www.kevincrowley.com >  If you go to his publications 
page, you can download a PDF version of the following article:

Crowley, K. & Jacobs, M. (2002). Islands of expertise and the development 
of family scientific literacy. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.) 
Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum 

Dinosaur Families, the temporary exhibit that Ethan visited at age two, is no 
longer at the Field Museum, but you can see it online here:
   < http://www.kokorodinosaurs.com/eggmountain.html >
You can visit the Field Museum online at:
   < http://www.fmnh.org./ >.  
You'll find lots of information about Sue, their famous Tyrannosaurus rex.

I've developed a few Web sites about my kids' islands of expertise:


You can visit Ethan's island of dinosaur expertise here:
< http://saltthesandbox.org/dinosaurs/index.htm >


You can visit Aaron's small continent of car expertise here:
< http://www.saltthesandbox.org/aarons_cars/index.htm >


Once summer comes, both Ethan and Aaron both add to their 
islands of bug expertise.  To visit our shared island of cicada 
go here:
< http://saltthesandbox.org/cicada_hunt/index.htm >


You can visit Daddy's island of rock expertise by going here:
< http://www.saltthesandbox.org/rocks/index.htm >

I published an article about kids' passion for collecting, which also plays a role in 
their development of islands of expertise.  It's called "Aaron's Treasures: How 
to nurture your child's urge to collect (without letting it drive you nuts)
and it was published in the July, 2002, issue of Chicago Parent.  Here's an online 
version of that article:
   < http://saltthesandbox.org/ChicagoParentArticle1.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 August 22, 2002, and it was last updated on December 16, 2002.