Guest Blog: Productive Passion or Distracting Obsession? What To Do When Children Have an Intense Interest in Just One Thing

SpecialGuestBloggerWe’re excited to welcome today’s guest blogger, Ann Gadzikowski, MEd, author of Story Dictation: A Guide for Early Childhood Professionals and Challenging Exceptionally Bright Children in Early Childhood Classrooms. As early childhood coordinator for the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, Ann offers keen insight on what you can do to support and expand children’s learning when they express strong interests in a particular topic.

AnnGadzikowski

Ann Gadzikowski, MEd, has more than twenty years of experience as an early childhood teacher and program director. She is the early childhood coordinator for the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University and teaches early childhood education courses at Oakton Community College.

Parents and teachers are sometimes puzzled or concerned when a child develops a very intense interest in a specific topic, such as dinosaurs, fairies, space travel, or horses. For example, I know a child who is fascinated with trains. Gabe’s favorite outing is a ride on the local commuter train with his parents and sister. It doesn’t matter where the train is going, he just enjoys being on the train, studying the routes, and observing the conductor. He knows a great deal about different kinds of trains, both freight and passenger, knowledge he’s gained from looking at books and watching videos, and he can talk for hours on the subject.

In early childhood education we often talk about supporting the development of “the whole child,” the idea that children thrive when they have a broad variety of learning experiences. When a child demonstrates such an intense interest in one topic, perhaps even refusing to engage in activities that are not related to the special interest, we might wonder whether the child is developing an unhealthy obsession. Should we make them break way from this narrow focus and try new things?

My experience working with exceptionally bright children in summer enrichment classes leads me to believe that we should go ahead and nurture children’s special interests. I think there is a tendency among parents and professionals to become overly concerned about making children “well-rounded.” Young children, like all human beings, have preferences and opinions. When a topic sparks their interest, whether it is tornadoes or koala bears or robots, they should have the opportunity to explore that topic. Let children take charge of their own learning and make active and independent choices about where they are focusing their attention.

Teachers in preschool, kindergarten, and even the primary grades can use a child’s intense interest in a specific topic as a starting point for further learning. For example, a child’s interest in airplanes can be used to encourage that child to learn more about how engines and aerodynamics. The child’s interest can be integrated into social play with other children, such as encouraging all the children to pretend they are airplane pilots flying jetliners during outdoor playtime.

One of the reasons adults may be concerned about a child’s intense interest in a single topic is that they fear this kind of narrow focus could indicate a child has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Asperger’s Syndrome (AD). It’s true that some children with ASD or AD develop intense special interests, but the process for determining a diagnosis for ASD and AD is very complex and takes into account many different behaviors and factors. This type of evaluation can only be conducted by a pediatric neurologist or other specialist. An intense special interest alone does not mean a child has ASD or AD or that they need to be evaluated by a neurologist. Many, many children develop passionate interests in fascinating subjects. These interests are a reflection of the child’s insatiable curiosity and their ability to think deeply about a specific topic, not a sign that something is wrong.

But what if the subject of the child’s interest is in something the family or teachers feel is not a healthy choice, such as a mass media cartoon character like SpongeBob SquarePants?  Or something potentially violent, like sword fighting? Or what if a child develops an interest in something inappropriate for young children, such as cosmetics or tattoos? Parents and teachers must certainly create rules and set limits that will keep children safe and healthy, such as limiting the amount of time children are exposed to media each day. A child’s pursuit of learning must conform to the rules and expectations of her family and school. At the same time, we can look for ways to direct the child’s interests into a healthier and more productive direction. A child who is fascinated by SpongeBob could be encouraged to create his own original episode of the show, using toy figures and a video camera. A child who is passionate about sword fighting might enjoy observing a fencing competition at your local high school or college. A child who is really curious about cosmetics and tattoos probably has some kind of aptitude or interest in color and design. This child will likely benefit from experimenting with a variety of open-ended art materials such as watercolor paints or oil pastels. On paper, not skin, of course.

Whatever the child’s interest, the best advice for both parents and teachers is to start where you are. Accept and acknowledge the children’s feelings and ideas. Find out as much as you can about the child’s interests by asking questions, having open-ended conversations, and observing the child’s play. Find ways to support and expand the child’s explorations of the topic. For example, if her interest is in mermaids, take her to the library to find books about mermaids and sea creatures. Let her mix water and salt in a bowl to see if it smells and tastes like the sea. What seems like a childish diversion now could turn into a passion that lasts her whole life. Who knows? She might grow up to be a marine biologist, a researcher at the top of her field. As parents and teachers, our job is to nurture and support children along the way, providing them with resources, information, materials, conversation, and questions that will allow them to explore their passions.

Ann Gadzikowski’s books, Story Dictation and Challenging Exceptionally Bright in Early Childhood Classrooms, are available from Redleaf Press.

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Tell us: Which topics interest the children you care for or teach? What do you do to support those interests?

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