Enabling Environments

Special interest – Why you should support that dinosaur fan’s obsession

  • Special interest – Why you should support that dinosaur fan’s obsession

Why does a special interest begin and why are they beneficial? Laura Cross investigates how can you help to sustain them in your setting…

Everyone knows a child who’s obsessed with dinosaurs. I don’t mean just thinking dinosaurs are cool. I’m talking about that child who 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’. Almost a third of children aged between two and six will have one at some point.

Why do special 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.”

No one’s 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 for young children 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.

Are girls and boys the same?

Research has found that extremely intense interests are much more common for young boys than for young girls. Research has shown that the most common intense interest is some sort of vehicle, but a close second is dinosaurs. 

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 facts. However, it may well be that society as a whole is to blame because of our ideas about 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. On the other hand, many women’s magazines are multi-interest or ‘lifestyle’.

Why are special interests beneficial?

Multiple studies have shown that children 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 school and the rest of 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 specialist at John Hopkins University, 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.”

With these benefits in mind, it’s important for Early Years practitioners to support children’s interests at nursery and at school too.

What role do schools play?

Intense interests generally last between six months and three years. A lot of the drop-off in interest correlates to starting school. Here, instead of parents praising children for their savant 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 preschooler after they enter school. Perhaps that 20% will go on to specialise in those interests in later life, like paleontologist Kenneth Lacavara mentioned above.

The other factor of course is that when children start school, they have much less free time to devote to investigating their interests. However, they’ll also begin to understand that the school curriculum requires a broader, yet more superficial, knowledge. Sadly, most will end up abandoning their prior interests that brought them so much enjoyment as well as other benefits.

How can you keep the interest alive?

While parents may be able to indulge their child’s interest with enthusiasm at home, with 30 children and their range of needs, it’s not quite so simple in an Early Years setting.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t also help children to maintain their interests for as long as possible. Taking an interest in your children’s interests and praising their knowledge can help them preserve the feeling that becoming an expert in a subject is a valid pursuit.

You can praise their knowledge and perhaps name them your ‘dinosaur expert’ or ‘car expert’ so they can take pride in their specialist knowledge in front of their peers. This might prompt other children to come forward as experts in other fields, and even perhaps encourage them to learn their own facts too.

Research has shown that 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, an intense interest brings lots of benefits. As Early Years practitioners, we can play a big part in keeping those interests alive.

Laura Cross is founder and leader of STEM workshop and club provider Inventors and Leaders.