To be a kid is to be a collector. It would be hard to find a kid or even a tween who doesn’t treasure some assortment of knick-knacks, trading cards, stickers, Silly Bandz or even seashells. Beyond acquiring, kids revel in displaying, trading, and showing and telling their collections. But why do kids collect?
In Stuff by anthropologists Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee, a study of hoarders and “the meaning behind our stuff,” they hypothesize that 90% of children collect something. They define a collection as being a deliberate assembly of items, with something that makes them alike, and importantly, that are hunted out and brought together deliberately (differentiating it from a group of things that you happen to have a lot of – like paper plates or pots and pans). They also provide an interesting criteria that might not apply to all cases but to some – the object must no longer be used as it was intended to be (i.e., it’s rendered, in some ways, dysfunctional).
This interesting history and study of hoarding includes tales of pre-teens who develop a hoarding disorder as an extension of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or other control-oriented neuroses. But they acknowledge that collecting serves more productive purposes for many people, especially for kids. They note, as many experts in this space have, that collections fit with children’s developmental needs. Specifically:
- They say “who I am” for kids who cannot yet express such weighty thoughts. While anti-consumerists often complain about the need for kids to show who they are through what they own, most 6 year olds – even those who don’t care about brands or buying in particular – can’t say who they are as well as they can show it.
- They make children feel important. Just like adult collectors, kid collectors find meaning in having curated and cultivated things of value. Unlike the adult collector, in most cases, a child’s collection doesn’t have a monetary value as much as a sentimental one. The objects of kids’ collection say, variably, “I’ve been somewhere,” “I know about something,” or “I have accomplished” (think Boy and Girl Scout badges). Just like a college degree, looked at through a semiotics lens, signifies the wherewithal to follow-through on a course of study, the collection reflects the child’s ability to stick with a mission. For children, who see making it to the next age as a major accomplishment, having invested weeks, months or years on the lookout for items that fit their collection feels like an achievement of attention. Thus, the collection becomes a way to display what they have and a self-contained trophy at the same time.
- They give children a chance to practice meaning-making. Frost and Steketee present a counter-intuitive hypothesis of the extreme adults they profile…They note, from the start of the book, that we might assume hoarders are isolated and anti-social, but their study proved otherwise. Rather than being disconnected, these hoarders often identified items of value and kept them because they saw something that another person they know might appreciate. These researchers don’t deny that hoarders suffer from a decision-making disorder – one that prevents them from prioritizing the truly important from the mundane (from trash), but they note that many of this disease’s adult victims are hyper social, not socially inept. For kids, collections can allow them to connect with others in a different way…Like adult hoarders, kids with collections see meaning in things that others might ignore. The items in their collection come with rich narratives, and often, kids add something new to their collection because of a subtle difference – a rock of a slightly different shade of gray, or a marble with a pretty combination of swirls, for example. Collections help children notice what makes objects similar and unique within a set.
So when we look at kids’ collections, we should also search for their meaning. The seemingly simple act of bringing items together in a deliberate fashion is more complicated than it seems. Want to understand a child? Ask them about their collections. And don’t just ask them what they collect, but why. And give them a shot at saying what makes each object different. Provide them with ways to document these sets of things that are so significant to them. Finally, look for inspiration in the collecting habits of youth. How can your brand proposition or program fit with little ones’ love of objects for their stories, not for their shine? Like collections themselves, the possibilities are endless.