Q: My 8-year-old son loves to collect stuff, and his room is full. My wife calls it junk. I call it cheap toys -- everything from rocks and coins to shells and "Star Wars" characters. Mom wants it tossed, but his teacher says collecting can foster creativity. True?
A: What his mom thinks is junk could be your son's ticket to a highly creative and innovative life. Read the biographies of many researchers, inventors, writers and artists, and you'll find that childhood collections put them on a path to becoming successful. Think young Charles Darwin and his bugs, or novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his butterflies.
Young collectors develop habits of mind (discovery, observation, categorization, prioritization and editing, among others) that are the foundation of many life skills.
"Some very famous people have relied professionally on their leisure collections for inspiration, knowledge and skills. A century ago, psychologists and educators took the collecting habit in children seriously and pondered how to use it to advantage in the classroom," note Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, co-authors of "Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
They think that collections can offer the intellectual and sensual stimulation necessary to inspire personal � HYPERLINK "http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/creativity" �creativity�; that collecting develops a number of important "mental tools necessary for creative thinking," such as learning to observe acutely, make fine distinctions and comparisons, and recognize patterns and gaps.
JeanAnn Lewis, a West Virginia mom, used to call it junk too, but finally saw the light when she noticed that her fifth-grade son enjoyed sharing his collection of found objects and coins with friends and adults, "describing them in great detail, making judgments about their properties, even writing reports about them for school," she says.
"I was like (BEGIN ITALS)'whoa'(END ITALS) when he told his grandmother the worth of a nickel he found in a cigar box at a garage sale," she explains. "He told her he would keep it because it would only get more valuable. He was learning patience, how to research an item and monetary appreciation without any help from me!"
Rather than nag about the clutter, Lewis uses it as a teachable moment, showing her son that collections should be taken care of -- putting items in cases or boxes, or organized on shelves and dusted.
"Twice a year, we look at what should be put in storage, traded or tossed," she says. "That helps keep his bedroom clean by boy standards. We narrow what he'll collect so that every object doesn't come home. He reads about things he's collecting, too."
Her son's collections have given the family a great activity to enjoy together, says Lewis. "On weekends, we stop at yard sales for a look-see. My son knows he can use part of his allowance on his finds. It's teaching him how to save, spend and manage money. He and my husband have started to sell some of the items, such as bird's nests, on eBay. It's fun!"
(For more on kids and collecting, go to: www.smithsonianeducation.org/students/idealabs/amazing_collections.html.)
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)