TEACHABLE MOMENTS: Collecting is an important activity starting in childhood

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

A Wall Street Journal article featured Dr. Balick, director of the Bronx Botanical Garden. The article indicates he became interested in plants at age four when observing how fast cucumbers grew. He is currently visiting remote civilizations to identify how the local flora is being used to help cure illnesses. He is collecting samples, documenting the cure and bringing the samples back to the Bronx Botanical Garden. The key word here is collecting because my research indicates collecting is a common trait of young scientists. Collecting is also a common childhood habit of many highly creative people who collected for a spectrum of reasons.

Georgia O’Keeffe collected objects found in nature starting at an early age. The more unusual the shape the more she liked the object. The action of collecting these shapes made her much more observant of nature as a young child.  Early on, she found that the shapes made her paintings unusual. She found a cow’s skull while walking in the desert area around her home and that skull became the subject of several of her well known paintings.

Warren Buffet and his childhood friend collected soda bottle caps outside stores. The collecting of the caps was data gathering for them because they planned to make money. The caps were separated by brand. Once they had identified the most popular soda, they purchased bottles and then went door to door selling the soda. 

Robert Oppenheimer’s grandfather gave Robert a collection of minerals as a gift. The chiseled and glittering stones immediately captivated the boy. He became a devoted amateur mineralogist, often touring the countryside during weekends in search of new samples to add to his collection. His fascination with geology and mineralogy became so strong that by his 11th birthday he had become an elected member of the New York Mineralogical Club. His first scientific paper was a report about minerals that he read to the club when he was 12. 

So, what should children collect? The answer is anything that interests them. Sometimes, like in Robert Oppenheimer’s case, the parents or other family members can get them started by a simple gift of objects to be collected or tools for handling and organizing a collection. A quick search of Amazon found over 300 how to collect books that would help the child.  The Usborne Book of Collecting Things (Needham/Gibson) is a book that has a wealth of information.  It not only suggests what to collect, it also recommends how to store the collected items. As a parent, you want to be sure to help your child get a handle on how to store collected items so you don’t have a disaster in your child’s room.

When it comes to organizing a collection, you should help your child by asking specific questions. For example, when collecting baseball cards, you might want to ask what the categories will be for the cards. Do they want to save them together by teams? Do they want to keep them together by positions played? Or, do they want to keep them together by batting averages?  Another example is collecting political buttons, which can get children interested in politics. 

Getting equipment and supplies for a collection is an important consideration. E. O. Wilson wanted to collect butterflies. However, World War II caused a problem because there was a shortage of steel for making the mounting pins. He settled for collecting ants because he could keep them in little bottles. Viewing the collections of insects at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC stimulated his own collecting. He continued collecting as an adult and is especially noted for his knowledge of ants. So, collections can lead to a career.

Collecting encourages creativity traits of curiosity, preference for complexity, making connections, and perseverance. The mentioning of childhood collections in so many biographies of eminent individuals leads me to emphasize the importance of children developing collections of objects that are in their areas of interest.  Acting as a guiding adult partner can lead to a closer bond between you and your child.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.