You know those kids on Ellen who can name all of the United States presidents, the years they served, and the name of their childhood pet? Or the kids who will correct you on your assumption that all dinosaurs live in the Jurassic period, when really their fossils clearly indicate that they existed during the Cretaceous period? Or how about the smarty pants who knows all of the constellations?
Some kids, yours may be one of them, are “intense interest” learners. They gravitate to one particular thing and become obsessed with it.
But don’t worry if the only thing your kid can talk about is trains; these focused efforts enhance their intelligence.
A study done by the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University demonstrated that an intense, focused interest benefited a kid’s intellectual development. And Psychology Spot reported that, “In practice, [these] type of interests, especially those that demand a conceptual domain as is the case of dinosaurs…enhance perseverance, improve attention and enhance skills of complex thinking as the processing of information.”
See? Your kid really is more than just a walking Wikipedia page or fun party trick. THEY ARE BRILLIANT.
When a child is truly interested in something, they will seek ways to learn and play so they can absorb as much information as possible. Language and creative thinking skills are improved, and a child with these strengths is often a good problem solver and can navigate social situations well. And when your kiddo feels like the master of something, their confidence soars. All of this motivates a child to ask more questions (sorry?) and explore their world in deeper ways.
A child’s intense interest—say, for Thomas and all other trains—is self-driven. This means they are taking control of their learning in a way that gives them control; this really is all a kid wants sometimes. But this isn’t about power struggles, it’s about a child falling in love with something and finding strategic ways to foster that love. That drive is a very powerful tool that encourages autonomy in their education.
During their childhood, about a third of children will develop an intense interest for one topic between the ages of 2 and 6. A study done by the The University of Virginia and Yale University found that only 20% of these kids will carry on their passion into adulthood. Kids will spend months and years learning the ins and outs of construction vehicles or tractors, but the fascination will fade when they begin elementary school. This is a time when self-motivated learning turns into forced and curriculum-based learning. Instead of having the time to really dig in to one topic, kids are asked to broaden their knowledge and skill sets.
After several birthdays and Christmases of only buying monkey and gorilla toys, games, and books, for example, your child may decide they just aren’t into any of it any more. Kindergarten can really change a kid, huh?
While this is not a bad thing overall, it does mean that a child will give up on that one passion that occupied all of their time and thoughts. You may be relieved that you no longer have to hear about front loaders, excavators, or cranes (I knew way more than I thought possible about construction vehicles when my son was 3), but be thankful for the benefits of that intense interest. And if you have a kiddo obsessed with one particular topic, remember that it’s okay to let them stay obsessed.
Encourage your intense interest learners to transfer that excitement into the classroom. How can they continue to learn about their passion within the limits of a classroom? What other topics can they latch on to or what other types of people do they want to know about? Help them get time outside of school to sit and explore again. Offer clubs or classes that carve out time for your kid’s curiosity. It’s okay if a kid lets go of an interest, but if you see that it is bothering them or that they feel like they need to let go, then do everything you can to be sure they have time to get lost in their imaginative and inspired learning.
Let dinosaurs or insects or anything be your child’s educational muse. It will serve them well in the future even if they don’t become a paleontologist or entomologist. It makes buying gifts pretty easy too.