Collections: They're Not Just Clutter! - DuPage Children's Museum

Collections: They’re Not Just Clutter!

October 1, 2020

Collections: They’re Not Just Clutter!

By Alix Tonsgard, MS, Early Learning Specialist, DuPage Children’s Museum

I am, and have always been, a collector. Interestingly enough, the things I collected as a child are still the things I feel drawn to today–natural objects including small pieces of driftwood, heart stones, fossils, shells, and sea glass. The majority of the treasures in my natural collections were found in the same place, on a quiet beach in Door County. Yet any time I travel, if there’s a beach, I cannot stop myself from being utterly entranced by the search for treasures. 

Since early childhood, I have also found the collections of others fascinating. Whenever I saw one, there was always something that sparked my curiosity, something magical and mysterious, that drove me to explore. In my teaching days I would notice when my students were drawn to certain objects and how they would create piles and spaces where they would hide and examine their treasures. 

Later, in graduate school, I learned there is developmental significance in why children create collections and, to this day, it is one of my favorite developmental topics to “nerd out” on. Here’s the reason why I think it’s so cool: when children collect things, it’s an opportunity where you can actually see and participate in their cognitive development.   

Let’s use the two-year-old boy in my household as an example. Now is that time of year when the trees are starting to drop interesting looking treasures–pine cones, black walnuts, acorns, and all sorts of other seeds we have yet to identify but the little guy still wants to collect and examine them all. He also likes to collect cars, monster trucks, and glass vase filler beads. 

So what does this have to do with his development? It suggests to me that his brain is working hard to master the ability to classify; this is an important part of a child’s cognitive development. When children classify they are organizing large amounts of information about experiences and objects in ways that allow them to access that information later. This is really important for learning and remembering and plays an important role in the development of logical and critical thinking and math and science skills.

Now let’s move on to middle childhood, when kids are between 6 to 11 years of age. Even if you are not a collector of things right now, I am willing to bet that when you were around eight years old you went through a phase when you collected stickers, baseball cards, or maybe Garbage Pail Kids. Creating collections at this age also carries cognitive developmental significance but for reasons that are more rooted in social development and the child’s sense of self.

At this stage of development, higher level thinking skills are really taking off. Those important classification skills that they were building in the first five years have now set them up for more advanced ways of categorizing and comparing things and experiences. And, not only are they comparing experiences, but they are noticing themselves in relation to others.

It makes sense that children of this age often need to belong to a group or are putting a lot of importance on friendships. So, essentially, collections are a way of putting their new cognitive skills to work in a way that helps them connect with others while building a sense of competence. It’s really much more complex but I am not here to give you a dissertation.  

Seriously guys, the brain development that happens in early childhood and the way that EVERYTHING, from the way they think, move, form friendships, express their feelings, is all related and amazing. I hope you are starting to see how I can get so excited about all of this. So my friends, nurture those desires to build collections, give them ways to store and organize them, engage in collecting and sorting, have conversations, ask questions, and if there is something that you don’t know, look it up together!

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About Alix

Alix Tonsgard is the Early Learning Specialist at DuPage Children’s Museum. She holds an MS in Child Development from the Erikson Institute. Acting as the Museum’s advocate for early childhood development and learning, she ensures that the latest research in Early Childhood Education is represented in all Museum exhibits, professional development initiatives, and public programs.