My son Hector was two when he happened across a starter rock collection at a yard sale. Thus began a great fascination with collecting, sorting, and classifying that has lasted over ten years and shows no sign of waning. The original rock collection has increased exponentially. He also started a seashell collection at age two, and has added to it every summer through beach combing, and also with a few special purchases. Then there is his Pokemon card collection, which seems to breed when left in his closet at night, and a more modestly sized collection of coins. Hector is a collector!
I remember a few years ago I wondered if there was any benefit to all this. A friend assured me that scientists and mathematicians need to be adept at sorting, classifying, and rearranging sets. I think this does make sense, and my son is certainly mathematically and scientifically inclined. He is enjoying a college chemistry class and his ACT and SAT math and science scores from age 11 and 12 are high enough to satisfy any college in the nation.
I've searched a bit online to find out more about kids who collect. My casual research has led me to believe that yes, indeed, there is a benefit. Preschools and kindergartens encourage children to practice sorting and classifying as basic math skills. Collecting can be a creative endeavor, and lead to an interest in art and history as well. Museum curators are the ultimate collectors!
Both the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts of America recognize collecting achievement with specialized badges. Kids who collect learn may to identify specimens, observe subtle differences, and understand what characteristics are more or less desirable in a given object. Kids who get serious about collecting may learn about setting goals, bartering, and perhaps making money to boot! Today's Pokemon aficionado may be tomorrow's rare book expert.
True collecting is about studying the things being collected, and not merely acquiring them. A child who “collects” a set of toys that are the latest fad (think Beanie Babies and Webkinz) but does so only to try to get more than her friend across the street is not what I consider a genuine collector. A real collector will take it further than that, and will take great pleasure in manipulating the items into sets and subsets. For the youngest children, this may involve placing stuffed animals into family groups, or perhaps dividing creatures into categories such as, birds, mammals, etc.
If you are considering introducing a child to the art of collecting, there are a few simple things to think about first. How much will the items cost? Stamps, shells, and rocks can be free or close to it, though there are obviously also some very expensive specimens in each of these categories. Coins will also vary greatly in price. Where will the collection be stored? Does the child express an interest? It is better not to push a collecting hobby on someone, as I found out when I presented my son with my old stamp collection from Nana's attic. Politely, my son thanked me for the gift, but he never did spend any time with it. Stamps apparently did not suit him. Ah well, maybe one of my girls will enjoy it one of these days. The older one could use the organizational influence...