Everyone knows a child who’s obsessed with dinosaurs.
I’m not talking about thinking dinosaurs are pretty cool, but that child that knows all the scientific names and can tell you the difference between the Mesozoic era and the Cretaceous period.
Scientists call this kind of obsession an ‘intense interest’ and almost a third of children aged between 2 and 6 will have one at some point.
Research has shown that the most common intense interest is some sort of vehicle, but a close second is dinosaurs.
But why do these intense interests begin, why are they beneficial and how can you help to sustain them?
Why do these intense interests exist?
Jeff Bezos once said “One of the huge mistakes people make is that they try to force an interest on themselves. You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you.”
We aren't quite sure why children choose one particular subject of interest over another, but there are some clear ideas as to why the intensity of that interest develops.
Paleontologist Kenneth Lacavara had an intense interest in dinosaurs in childhood which he has carried through to adulthood. His theory is that for children this interest gives them their first taste of mastery.
Being really really good at something is a chance to feel powerful as an authority on something over and above those around them. And let's face it, small children don't get many chances to feel powerful over those around them.
Why are they so beneficial?
Multiple studies have shown that kids who go through these intense interest phases are typically above average in terms of intelligence.
A 2008 study found that sustained intense interests can help children develop increased knowledge and persistence, a better attention span, and deeper information-processing skills. The way that children study cars or dinosaurs is a precursor to the strategies they'll use to face new situations and problems throughout their lives. They'll ask questions and look for answers on their own developing their independent learning and motivation and problem solving strategies too.
Kelli Chen, a paediatric psychiatric occupational therapist (phewph what a job title!) at John Hopkins, found that intense interests can be a big confidence boost for children too as “asking questions, finding answers, and gaining expertise is the learning process in general.”
Are girls and boys the same?
Research has found that extremely intense interests are much more common for young boys than for girls.
Girls tended to explore interests through pretend adventures, creative arts and literacy, whereas boys were more likely to want to gather information on their interest.
This might be because boys can tend to take comfort in set rules and finite fact. However unfortunately, parents and marketing could also be to blame because of their idea of what is appropriate for boys and girls to be interested in.
Look at any newsagent bookshelf and the magazines for men tend to have a specialist subject: golf, DIY, fitness, whereas many women's magazines are multi-interest or 'lifestyle'.
When and why does the interest wane?
Intense interests generally only last between six months and three years. A lot of the drop off in interest correlates to starting school when instead of parents praising children for their savant like knowledge of therapods, teacher praise is suddenly aimed towards playing nicely, sitting quietly and helping others.
In fact, only 20% of children are still passionate about the same interest they were obsessed with as a child after they enter school. Perhaps that 20% will go on to specialise in those interests in later life, like the Paleontologist Kenneth Lacavara I mentioned above.
When children start going to school and studying, they have much less free time to devote to investigating their interests. They'll also begin to understand that the school curriculum requires a broader, yet more superficial, knowledge and sadly most will end up abandoning their prior interests.
How can you keep the interest alive?
As parents, we can do our parts in fostering our children's special interests by sharing their enthusiasm about those trips to the train station, library or museum (again!). A shared interest is more likely to endure than one they have embarked upon alone.
Another recommendation is to make sure they're learning facts about their interests. Children who actively learnt information about their interest performed better than those who just went on pretend adventures with their dinosaurs.
Just remember, when you aren't sure you want to have yet another discussion about which dinosaurs were carnivores, their intense interest brings lots of benefits. And before you know it, for 80% of them, their interest will wane and you'll look back on the days of living in Jurassic Park with fondness.
You can feed the love of dinosaurs with our dinosaur-themed Little STEAMers class for 2-5 year olds.