Many children go through periods of obsessions labeled by psychologists as “childhood intense interests”. From horses to princesses to bulldozers to dinosaurs, parents support these fixations with toys, books, clothing, movies, etc.
Just what is the connection between children’s intense interests and family factors? How do these childhood obsessions support cognition and behavior?
About 1/3 of children develop intense interests beyond typical enthusiasm. Childhood intense interests affect boys more than girls. They usually start around 18 months of age. http://www.livescience.com/55492-why-kids-have-obsessions.html
Although a child’s intense interest in trains or princesses may be annoying at times, there are benefits.
What is an intense interest?
Consider the following examples from Developmental Psychology:
Parent descriptions of their children’s intense interests
A 4.5-year-old boy’s interest in trains originated from an early focus on the pattern of train tracks themselves. From about 18 months of age, he would point out anything that resembled train tracks—car tracks in the sand at the beach, fences, stitching on clothing, and even zippers. After he received a Thomas the Tank Engine railroad set for his second birthday, he played with it for hours every day. He even slept with his trains. He watched train videos that his parents and others bought for him “countless times.” The local librarian knew of his interest and saved books about trains for him to check out on his weekly visit.
A father of a 4.5-year-old girl reported that his daughters’ intense interest in dressing up had begun about 2 years earlier when she was 2.5 years of age. Around this time, the little girl insisted on wearing only skirts and dresses (absolutely no trousers) and began dressing up on a regular basis; after preschool, she would come home and immediately change into a costume, usually a cheerleading outfit or a princess gown, which she accessorized with jewelry and fancy shoes. She spent time looking through catalogs for dress-up costumes. She was also interested in what other people wore, be they characters in picture books, on television, or in real life, and would comment as to whether or not she liked their clothing and accessories. Friends and family gave her so many dress-up costumes as gifts that a footlocker was purchased to hold her collection.http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf
Sound familiar? In all three examples, adults supported and guided the children’s intense interests.
Childhood intense interests support cognition and behavior
According to a 2008 study published in Cognitive Development, previous research has found:
Sustaining interests on conceptual domains can lead to a number of benefits for learning—increased knowledge and persistence (Hidi, 2000; Renninger, 1992), heightened attention (Renninger & Wozniak, 1985), and deeper levels of processing (Schiefele & Krapp,1996).http://www3.nd.edu/~kkelley/publications/articles/Alexander_Johnson_Leibham_Kelley_CD_2008.pdf
These early preschool interests and their support by early childhood educators and parents help children learn self-identity based on interest, as well as a love of learning. Questing for new knowledge on their particular intense interest, children learn through developmentally appropriate play, literature, media, and toys. These interests are often influenced by cultural gender marketing. Researchers have found that over half of childhood obsessions are gender stereotyped.http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf
More research supports early intense interests and obsessions support cognition. Any parent of a childhood obsessed with dinosaurs, for example, will be impressed by their child’s knowledge of difficult to pronounce and spell names, as well as specific information about each type.
According to “Planes, Trains, Automobiles—and Tea Sets: Extremely Intense Interests in Very Young Children”, a 2007 study published in Developmental Psychology:
A large literature exists on children’s interests in general and the interrelations between interests and intelligence, learning, atten- tion, conceptual development, and expertise. (See, for example, work by Krapp, 2002; Renninger, 1992; Renninger, Hidi, & Krapp, 1992; Renninger & Wozniak, 1985). Two lines of research on preschool children’s interests are of particular relevance here. One comprises detailed case studies of a small number of young children whose intense fascination with dinosaurs and birds led them to acquire remarkable levels of knowledge (Chi, Hutchinson, & Robin, 1989; Chi & Koeske, 1983; Johnson & Mervis, 1994; Johnson, Scott, & Mervis, 1997). Those reports focus on the organization of the conceptual structures of these young experts in their domain of expertise and its impact on their subsequent acquisition of further domain-related knowledge. In a recent short- term longitudinal study based on parent reports, 20% of a large sample of 4-year-old children were classified as having sustained intense interests in conceptual (knowledge-related) domains (John- son, Alexander, Spencer, Leibham, & Neitzel, 2004).http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf
The benefits of childhood intense interests extend beyond the preschool years, even as these particular interests subside. K.E. Johnson et al. explain:
Conceptual interests clearly lay the foundation for subsequent knowledge acquisition (Johnson & Mervis, 1994). Acquiring expertise on any domain of information is a manifestation of cognitive competence, which becomes a very important determiner of level of self-esteem in middle childhood (Cauce, 1987; Cole, 1991). Thus, having more knowledge about a domain may make a child more confident about learning new information.http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/biothought/articles/johnson%202004.pdf
Who knew your child’s obsession with trains or dolls would lead to more confidence as a middle school learner?
Why do childhood intense interests wane as children get older?
Once children reach school age, these intense interests begin to wane. According to “The development of conceptual interests in young children” by Joyce M. Alexander, Kathy E. Johnson, Mary E. Leibham, Ken Kelley:
Children with conceptual interests may find themselves in a dilemma as school begins. They may be highly interested in a domain and be accustomed to receiving individualized support for the interest from parents and preschool teachers. Conceptual interests are one of the few early childhood interests where a child tends to rely on parents or other older individuals to provide a significant amount of relevant information (Leibham et al., 2005). Middle class children almost certainly have opportunities to ask curiosity questions and to receive informative answers during the relatively unstructured preschool years to help feed their growing interest in a conceptual domain (Renninger, 1992; Chouinard, 2007). In contrast, the elementary school class- room involves more children, more stringent curricular objectives (particularly with an increased societal emphasis on assessment and accountability), and there may be relatively little time for children to ask questions pertinent to their interest and receive individualized answers. School environments may simply not accommodate the long-term pursuit of relatively narrow interests, particularly among young children that are still quite dependent on adults and older children for access to information (Prenzel, 1992)http://www3.nd.edu/~kkelley/publications/articles/Alexander_Johnson_Leibham_Kelley_CD_2008.pdf
Once children reach school age, peer pressure may influence their intense interests. They may find new ones that are popular amongst their peer groups. They may choose friends with similar interests. J.M. Alexander et al. explain:
Young children with conceptual interests may also experience new social pressures as they begin to form friendships in elementary school. Friends are an important source of social support and friendships often are based on common ground (Johnson et al., 1999). Other children in the child’s class may not happen to know much about—or be very interested in frogs, horses, or dinosaurs. Thus children may intentionally suppress their interests and knowledge (when they do not align with those of their classmates) in order to nurture developing friendships.http://www3.nd.edu/~kkelley/publications/articles/Alexander_Johnson_Leibham_Kelley_CD_2008.pdf
The connection between children’s intense interests and family factors?
Research suggests that children’s intense interest begins with the child themselves.http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf These interests are “personally meaningful” and supported both internally and externally. Internal support includes prior knowledge. External support includes adult support and experiences.http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/biothought/articles/johnson%202004.pdf
As parents, we can support our children’s intense interests to encourage the benefits of sustained attention and increased levels of knowledge.
Most families have a positive reaction to children’s intense interests, but sometimes children develop anti-social behavior as a result. Parental anecdotes reported in “Planes, Trains, Automobiles—and Tea Sets: Extremely Intense Interests in Very Young Children” illustrate:
The vast majority (92%) of parents reported that they reacted positively to their child’s EII and actively supported it. They bought the objects or replicas that their child was interested in, as well as relevant books and videos. Parents also reported spending time in a range of activities related to their child’s interest. For example, one mother whose daughter was intensely interested in books spent hours reading aloud every day, and the pair made several trips to the library each week. Another mother reported that she and her son, who was intensely interested in lawnmowers, would regularly walk around the neighborhood together to watch neighbors mow- ing their lawn. Others scoured the neighborhood for construction sites with heavy equipment.
Some children’s extreme interests became disruptive, resulting in limits being instituted. In one case, a little boy’s extreme interest in trains became a problem at preschool. The child became ob- sessed with a table with pictures of Thomas the Tank Engine trains on it. His mother said that “he almost became a slave to the table” and stood guard to prevent other children from playing there. It was causing such a problem that the teacher ended up putting the table in storage. Another boy constantly pretended to be a dinosaur roaring and clawing at other children in his preschool. When some mothers complained to the teacher that it was upsetting their children, the child was forbidden to pretend to be a dinosaur at school.http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf
Researchers found the best way to support children interests was through free play and communication at home. K.E. Johnson et al. wrote on their findings:
As anticipated, conceptual interests were less apt to be sustained when children had relatively little time for free play. However, more free play was only predictive of sustained conceptual interests when it was coupled with a home environment in which communication was highly valued. It makes sense that providing preschoolers with ample time to explore domain-related information through play is not sufficient for developing play interests that entail learning conceptual information about categories of objects and their interrelations. Rather, free play opportunities need to be accompanied by family discussions and the communication of ideas in order for such interests to flourish.http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/biothought/articles/johnson%202004.pdf
How do you support your child’s intense interest?
The Din0saur Obsession
A 4-year-old boy’s interest in dinosaurs began when he was 18 months of age. He constantly looked through books (fiction and nonfiction) about dinosaurs, identifying and comparing them. He peppered his parents with detailed questions about dinosaurs— how they lived, what they ate, how they hunted, and so on. He spent hours playing with hundreds of plastic dinosaur figurines, organizing them into elaborate scenes. He also drew countless pictures of the different types of dinosaurs. The boy’s mother was supportive of his interest and learned a lot about dinosaurs herself. Twice the whole family drove 120 miles to visit the Natural History Museum in Washington to see and learn more about dinosaurs.http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf
We were sent a lovely collection of dinosaur stories that is sure to please any enthusiast.
The Great Big Dinosaur Treasury features the following classic stories that support childhood obsession positively:
- Curious George’s Dinosaur Discovery by Margret and H. A. Rey
- If the Dinosaurs Came Back by Bernard Most
- Tadpole Rex by Kurt Cyrus
- Ridin’ Dinos with Buck Bronco by George McClements
- Gus the Dinosaur Bus by Julia Liu, illustrated by Bei Lynn
- Dinosailors by Deb Lund, illustrated by Howard Fine
- Good Night, Dinosaurs by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Victoria Chess
- Patrick’s Dinosaurs by Carol Carrick, illustrated by Donald Carrick
I love all of these stories, and they are sure to support cognitions and literacy for any child with an intense interest in dinosaurs (not just boys!). It comes with downloadable party accessories to support your child’s obsessions in celebratory times as well.
As parents, we can support our children’s interest in positive ways. Although gender roles often play into interests, we can ensure our children are exposed to information, toys, and dramatic play that allow them to explore ideas without gender confinement. Girls love dinosaurs too!
|↑2, ↑4, ↑5, ↑9, ↑11, ↑13||http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/childstudycenter/Planes%20trains%20and%20automobiles.pdf|
|↑3, ↑7, ↑8||http://www3.nd.edu/~kkelley/publications/articles/Alexander_Johnson_Leibham_Kelley_CD_2008.pdf|
|↑6, ↑10, ↑12||http://groups.psych.northwestern.edu/biothought/articles/johnson%202004.pdf|