Remember when you were nine or ten years old and you had that elaborate doll collection? Or maybe it was baseball cards . . . or trains . . . or model cars? If you did have a collection of some sort, you'll also remember that you used to spend hours arranging and rearranging your treasured items in a number of ways including by color, size, order of favoritism, etc. You would view your collection over and over in its various prioritized arrangements. Each item would have a specific meaning to you, and the space occupied by the item would also have some implication as to the degree of importance or appreciation you had.
There was something very soothing and absorbing about spending hour upon hour adding to your collection, rearranging it, looking at it, showing it to others, and thinking about it as you drifted off to sleep. Even as you think of it now, you can remember the sense of satisfaction and excitement your collection provided for you. Why was that?
What Purpose Do Collections Serve?
Collections serve a multi-faceted purpose for kids during their childhood. This is especially true during the latency period. Latency is a fancy term for the developmental phase that takes place between the ages of six and eleven. During this stage, the primary task for the child is the development of cognition. In other words, it is the period in which there is significant brain development with corresponding leaps in the ability to think, process information, learn, and participate in formal education. There is, in essence, what could be called a cognitive explosion during this time.
Because a child's energy and attention is needed primarily for the expansion of thought processes during these years, affective (or emotional issues) take somewhat of a backseat. That doesn't mean that your child doesn't have emotional conflicts during this period - all of us who have kids in this developmental period know better than that. It's just that emotional tasks are not front and center as are cognitive tasks.
The Need for Fantasy and Play
So how does a child manage to deal with emotional and affective issues during this time? Very simply, through play and fantasy. Children build a fantasy life in which conflicts can be worked out indirectly through stories, games, and daydreaming. As they get older, they learn to verbalize directly their emotional experiences, but at this stage play greatly aids in the process and offers a safe bridge to more adult problem solving.
In addition to the creation of a very active fantasy life, children also use the defense of obsession-compulsion. Now many of you know of this more as a syndrome (OCD) that requires specific therapeutic intervention. We are not speaking of that particular syndrome, but rather of a type of activity that has as it's underlying character the use of obsessions and compulsions. This is a healthy, necessary activity that begins in latency and is used all throughout our adult life.
Kid's collections are the essence of this activity during childhood. Through the repetitive collecting, adding and deleting of the treasured item, and the arranging, rearranging, observing, thinking about, planning for continued development, and maintenance of the collection, a child is able to subdue some of the emotional conflicts that confront them during this age. At the same time, the child is developing and honing those skills in organization, planning, discrimination, and self-sustained gratification that are very necessary to all of us as adults in our endeavors to participate in higher education, to work, run households, and generally plan for our futures.
So, as you think about the special collections(s) you had as a child, you can not only remember the satisfying feelings that went along with placing those baseball cards in various configurations by teams, players, rookies, and so forth, but also realize that your present day ability to organize your office or your home, set up files on a computer, or prioritize tasks at work are all related to those skills you developed while maintaining a collection. As a parent, you can help your child by promoting and supporting his or her desire to collect something from the most simple to the very elaborate. Collections are a part of healthy latency development that serve as a bridge to the adult world of organization and future planning.
How to Help Your Child Start a Collection
AGE. Your child has some interest in collecting items around the ages of four to five, however, you will notice that they lose interest in one group of items after a short time and move on to something else. Usually, around ages six to seven, children begin to show interest in longer-term collections. You can begin as soon as your child seems to enjoy saving several of any item, and then expand on the type and elaboration of the collection as the interest increases and/or your child reaches the eight to ten year bracket.
FIRST COLLECTIONS. Start with something simple like stickers, shoelaces, or miniature characters or animals. Once your child begins to accumulate a few of the items, help him establish a special place for keeping the collection such as a shelf in his room, a box, or some area that will not become cluttered with other toys or items. Stickers, for instance, can be stuck on a board on the wall or in a sticker book. Baseball cards can be saved in special plastic pages that fit into notebooks or in boxes made especially for sports cards. Sometimes a whole bookcase or set of shelves is designated for a more elaborate collection such as miniature dolls or model cars. Current fad collections such as beanie babies or Pokeman cards are very popular and come with special holders or booklets for housing the collection. The idea is that the collection should occupy a special place that is always within view and accessible to the child. This encourages organizational skills, learning how to take care of something over time, and protecting one's accumulated work towards an ongoing goal.
ELABORATE COLLECTIONS. These are the collections for the older child. They include baseball cards, marbles, dolls, stamps, shells, action figures, model cars and planes, coins, trains, etc. These collections often can be kept by a child into adulthood and then passed down to other children in the family. In the case of baseball cards, they may be traded or sold in adulthood. Some adults may even develop a business out of such a collection. The importance of this collection is that it is far more elaborate than the collection of a six-year old. The categories, levels of organization, and differentiation and assignment of value to items are all quite sophisticated and require greater cognitive skill. Again, the collection should be preserved in a special place, and further should be exempt from handling by the parent(s) unless the child invites your participation. A parent should never throw away any part of a child's collection. The sense of control and privacy afforded by the collection is a necessary part of the collective process, and one that will foster your child's growing sense of independence coupled with responsibility and maturity.