It starts innocently enough. A pretty seashell plucked from the sand. A stuffed giraffe to commemorate a trip to the zoo. A pack of Silly Banz received as a birthday gift. Before you know it, your child's room is overtaken by boxes of shells, albums of baseball cards or herds of stuffed animals.
To an adult, it all might look like useless stuff that will just collect dust. But to a child, collecting is an exciting exercise in creating a world all of one's own — one he or she can control and tell stories about.
"Having a collection helps kids this age fit in and bond with their peers by providing a common ground for conversations and play," says Kathleen Camara, an associate professor of child development at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass. Still tempted to return that box of rocks to its natural habitat? Then read on to learn more about the important life lessons your child is gathering from his or her hobby.
He's becoming an expert. Any child who has tried to explain to an adult the significance of a Yu-Gi-Oh Elemental Hero Ocean card can tell you there are some things grown-ups just don't get. And that's exactly how kids like it. "It's empowering for a child to know more — or at least, think he knows more — about a subject than his parents or other adults," says Camara. Your child is driven to learn more, so he can continue being an authority on the topic.
She's taking on responsibility. The same child who can't recall where she left her jacket and who has to be reminded countless times to pick up her room will astound you with her devotion to caring for her prized possessions. "Collecting instills a sense of pride and ownership in young children. They want to protect and take care of their valuables," says Monica Cardoza, author of "Child's Play: Enriching Your Child's Interests, from Rocket Science to Rock Climbing, Stamp Collecting to Sculpture." You can foster this enthusiasm by helping your child find a good way to display her treasures, such as using albums, craft boxes, shelves or tins.
He's making social connections. Whether your child is negotiating a Fathead baseball card swap or informing a friend about the latest addition to his dragon menagerie, collectibles bring together peers with common interests. Collections that require trading also teach the art of friendly negotiation.
But don't step in if you feel your child's been duped. "What might not seem like a fair trade to you might be perfectly acceptable to your child," Camara says. Even if your child later regrets trading, he'll learn to think through such decisions more carefully the next time.
She's boosting school skills. Be it collectible horses or state quarters, it's a pretty good bet your kid knows exactly how many she has and which ones she wants next. All those hours she puts in counting, sorting, labeling, categorizing and organizing are fostering her math skills. Reading also gets a boost — kids who are into dinosaurs may invest time learning more about the time period when such creatures roamed the earth. Collectibles like Webkinz that have online personas help young students hone their computer skills, while encouraging them to accept responsibility for their virtual pets.
He's preserving memories. Family trips provide a great platform for starting and building a collection that provides lasting memories of fun times together. Focusing on a collectible keeps the begging in souvenir shops to a minimum, and the items don't have to cost a lot.
She's getting smart about money. When 8-year-old Nikki wants to add to her den of 20 Build-a-Bears, she knows not to ask mom. "Nikki's welcome to spend her allowance on as many stuffed animals as she wants. Because she knows it takes a long time to save up for these bears, she appreciates it more when she finally gets one," says Rose Candler, Nikki's mom.
Asking children to pay for collectibles out of their own funds is a smart way to teach them about saving and budgeting, as well as help them learn delayed gratification, says Camara. "The point isn't to complete a collection or to accumulate mass quantities. Each addition should have meaning, and having to plan for and earn that next coveted item makes owning it all the more special."
Jeannette Moninger of Denver, Colo., lives in home filled with her twin 9-year-old sons' vast collections of Matchbox cars, Pokémon cards and really cool rocks. Visit her online at www.jmoninger.com.
Resources for Kid Collectors
These websites provide useful tips for learning more about the art of collecting.
At the Smithsonian Institution's Kids Collecting site, kids can watch videos of people talking enthusiastically about their collections; view some of the Smithsonian's collections of stamps, coins, and rocks and minerals; and learn about starting, building and caring for a personal collection of any kind.
The U.S. Mint's "pocket change" website features everything a kid needs to know about numismatics, including tips for collecting and caring for coins, information about new coin designs, and suggestions for getting friends and family involved.
On the American Philatelic Society's Web site, young stamp collectors can find 10 low-cost tips to start a stamp collection and information about the various types of stamps kids can collect.