Several years before I was born, a scientist named Michelene Chi began studying toddler interest in dinosaurs. Parents everywhere know that toddlers can become obsessed with one particular interest. Sometimes this interest wanes over time; occasionally, a child will stick with their object of obsession into adulthood. More recently, a study of childhood cognitive development revealed that this obsession with dinosaurs helps toddlers prepare for school. The educational psychologists drew a few conclusions from their research, noting that conceptual interests (like dinosaurs) were not divided along gender lines.
Dinosaurs And Horses Are ‘Conceptual Domains’
Before we going to the meat of this study, let's talk about some of the fancy words these psychologists use. When I say that toddlers obsessed with dinosaurs perform academically, I’m over-simplifying. It’s not the dinosaurs that make these kids smart; it’s the grasping of a unique “conceptual domain”. A conceptual domain is a sort of network of ideas about a given topic. Toddlers might form these conceptual domains around horses, trains, Disney princesses, fish, dolls, etc. Interestingly children showed interest in these conceptual domains with little regard to traditional gender roles. Of course, psychologists are eager to dig into the interplay between a parent’s interest and that of their toddler.
Toddlers With Obsessions Ask Questions
Having an obsession with a conceptual domain can help young children in countless ways! Developing a sense of mastery creates confidence in children. This surge of confidence can embolden them to seek out other new interests, but sometimes a toddler sustains interest in their “thing” into childhood. Parents can encourage this long-term preference by prompting their toddler to ask questions and explore the concept with increasing detail.
“One way children with conceptual interests may construct such deep understandings is through question-asking.”
Question-asking helps toddlers learn how to learn. Memorizing the names of dinosaurs and what makes them special is a means to an end! In the future, your toddler will know how to analyze complex topics through the act of asking questions.
Special Interests Help Toddlers Form Friendships
During the toddler years, these conceptual obsessions can be a catalyst for fast friendship. I’ve seen it happen with my own son! He loves to play with the train table at our local library. Sometimes, another toddler will approach him and the two will begin playing together. It’s a natural, seamless integration. The two might tussle over a tree or the tank engine, but the toddlers play nicely together. Both kids love trains, they enjoy the act of putting them together and making train noises. However, that sense of shared understanding is the exception. When each toddler has a unique obsession, it can be easy to play in their own separate world.
Elementary School Discourages Conceptual Interests
While toddlers can choose to play individually, elementary-school kids are somewhat forced to work together. It’s good, this socialization, and perfectly normal for childhood development. At this stage, those toddler obsessions can become more of a social hindrance than a help. Research shows that children choose to diminish the significance of their interest in their chosen concept in order to avoid social isolation. Of course, teachers tasked with educating dozens of children are not able to build a curriculum that caters to every single individual interest. That isn’t to shame them; it’s simply an impossibility! With less time to devote to the details of their “dinosaurs”, toddlers usually gravitate to social activities and creative group play.
So go ahead and buy the whole dinosaur sheet set! Set up a pony ride for your horse-loving three-year-old. Encourage their love of the things that matter most to them! If they enjoy this early “research”, they’ll develop a lifelong love of learning.
SOURCE: The development of conceptual interests in young children, Joyce M. Alexander, Kathy E. Johnson, Mary E. Leibham, Ken Kelley