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Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Collecting: A Connection between Playing and Learning

Playful collecting in childhood exercises imaginative and cognitive skills.

You don't hear much about collecting in school now-a-days. But as we argued in a previous post, some very famous people have relied professionally on their leisure collections for inspiration, knowledge and skills. Moreover, a century ago, psychologists and educators took the collecting habit in children seriously -- and pondered how to use it to advantage in the classroom.

G. Stanley Hall, one of America's first and preeminent students of the ‘child mind', felt that students might be encouraged to collect "scraps on literature, geology, etc," such that instruction became, presumably, a kind of collecting game. Others, including Elizabeth Howe, thought it best to start with actual collecting interests of each individual child. "It is quite clear," she wrote, "that the teacher who had such information would have an insight into the children's inner life which she would hardly be able to get in any other way." Since good teaching strives to connect student interest to curricular content, such knowledge can be invaluable for building intellectual bridges.

Howe compiled a list of typical childhood hobbies, typical that is, for the early 1900s. Boys collected buttons, books, stamps, pictures, pens and pencils, stones, marbles, tools, railroad timetables, photographs, bats and balls, neckties, scarf-pins, tickets, tops, rulers, shoe-laces and seeds. Girls collected much the same things, exchanging bats and balls for dolls, ribbons, shells and spoons and switching out neckties for handkerchiefs, cups and saucers, calling cards and fancy work.

A medieval knight, Britains Limited.
A medieval knight, Britains Limited.

Obviously, children collected what they could find in their immediate environment, such as household or workbench items (often of minimal worth), toys, store-bought materials and natural objects. New items have certainly entered the lists, many, like Star Wars and Harry Potter figures or the WebkinzTM toys, highly commercialized.

To the best of our knowledge, Elizabeth Howe never answered her own question about what such collections tell us about the "inner life" of children. So we'll give it a go -- by taking a brief look at five children and their collecting habits. What concerns us here is not necessarily what these children collected, but what they did with their collections, which seems to us to be the much more important and insightful issue.

• At the turn of the 20th century, a young boy named Joseph Folsom began collecting things he found in the backyard and around the house: empty wooden spools, broken chess pieces, blocks of wood and stones of different sizes. Young Joe Folsom endowed each stone, each spool with personality. As his collections grew, so did the number of his ‘People'. Soon enough, he was organizing them into families and then into what he called "Systems." He associated certain colors, sounds, letters and emotional attributes with different People and ranked them within and across Systems.

• In the 1960s, one of us (Bob) began collecting Britains LimitedTM knights. The direct effect was to make Bob want a castle for his knights, so he began reading every book he could find at the local library about castle building. Eventually he built out of cardboard the castle he couldn't otherwise afford to buy, with stables for the horses, a working drawbridge, siege engines and all the rest. He incidentally learned a great deal about medieval culture.

A collection of Footsies.
A collection of Footsies.

• In the 1980s, two children (okay, our children) haphazardly collected stamps and coins, pinned butterflies and insects to foam board, and perhaps most intently of all, assembled a small army of little advertising pom-poms, the kind with glued on eyeballs and one big foot. Our children took the little pom-poms, called them Footsies and made up an elaborate game called Footsie Olympics. They drew up a list of rules, and as each sports event played itself out, they kept meticulous score. We still have those Footsies and the records of their thrills and spills.

• A decade later, a young girl, let's call her Molly, lined her bedroom shelves with dolls and more dolls of all shapes and sizes. Like many another child, Molly made up stories about her dolls. Some of these stories she made up with her friends, some she made up herself. She remembered each adventure of every doll as part of a larger story, which was the story of an imaginary world called ‘My Kingdom'.

The first observation we make is that free-choice collecting is a kind of play that results in something to play with. By free-choice we mean the pom-pom Footsies our children loved, rather than the stamps and coins we thought they might enjoy. Free-choice collecting, like free-choice play, has no overt goal other than the intrinsic satisfactions of the thing in itself.

Our second observation is that these intrinsic satisfactions have much to do with the ‘playability' of free-choice collectibles, with how readily they inspire an absorbing make-believe. Single function items or objects overly tied to pre-existing narratives, for instance, often do not allow for the free rein of imagination. Things amenable to symbolic transformation by the child best inspire play.

Our third observation is that collecting, like all forms of playing, exercises critical imaginative and cognitive skills. When the classifying bug bit young Joe Folsom, it bit him hard. In collecting play he plunged deeply into pattern finding and pattern forming. He invented play instruments for numerically gauging certain personality traits among his People and arranged them accordingly, thereby honing his understanding of mathematical proportions and relationships. Molly immersed herself in patterning of another sort, finding and forming connections between doll adventures. The logic she explored was narrative, rather than mathematical, tied to the dramas of family, friendships and favorite books. Our children, too, exercised their patterning skills, organizing and ordering their Footsie play into a game repeatable over many sessions. Because they worked out the rules of the game together, they also learned to cooperate, to play and invent collaboratively. Bob patterned his cardboard castle on the many photos and drawings he came across in books and developed crafts skills in bringing it to life. All five children modeled their play on real world experiences, even as they molded those experiences into imagined classifications, fictive games, representational models and imaginary worlds.

Finally, we observe that in each instance, the items collected served as repositories of distributed intelligence. Handling, arranging and classifying concrete objects, animating and empathizing in make-believe adventures, all five children explore an embodied feel for the logical, narrative and social relationships of abstract knowledge. For a time, the objects that are collected store both the what and the how of inner life as the child learns to think, to imagine and to reflect.

Sometimes a collection is not just a collection, but a spur to the imagination, to learning and creating. And that's what makes collecting in childhood a worthy pursuit, whether outside or inside the classroom. We don't hear much about collecting in school now-a-days, but maybe we should.

© Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein 2011


Folsom, Joseph K. (1915). The Scientific Play World of a Child. The Pedagogical Seminary 22(2): 161-182.

Howe, Elizabeth. (May, 1906). Can the Collecting Instinct Be Utilized in Teaching?
The Elementary School Teacher 6(9): 466-471.

About the Author
Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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