Ready, Set, Collect!

by local writer and Charlottesville mom Beverly Rakes

We are a family of collectors. Our home is sprinkled liberally with chickens, pressed leaves and Pokémon cards. Seashells fill lamps, baskets, shadow boxes and bags that are tucked into closets. Books line shelves in every room, are stacked on tables, in corners, and (in my children’s rooms) are even tucked under beds. Though none of our collections are the types of things most people would consider valuable, each item we have gathered means something to us and that makes it priceless.

What spurs collecting as a hobby? It’s hard to say. Many collections begin with a gift. A few years ago during the height of the beanie baby craze, I happened to be at a local toy store picking up a birthday present on the day that TY was releasing a new beanie baby. The lines were unimaginably long and the crowd around the beanie baby display was threatening to turn into a mob. Though there were a few children, most of the consumers were adults buying gifts for kids. I was in line waiting to check out behind a woman whose arms were literally overflowing with tiny Ty toys. After picking up a few of her beanie babies for the third time she grinned sheepishly.

“They are gifts for my granddaughter. She collects them,” she said, apologizing again for dropping a bear on my foot.

“Oh, that’s nice.” I replied, “How old is she?”

The woman hesitated for just a second, and then smiled again. “She’ll be three months old tomorrow.”

Others collections are born from family trips or personal interests. My family’s interest in shells came after a summer trip to Emerald Isle in North Carolina, where we happened upon a wall of sand that was ten feet high and packed with small shells of every shape and color. Who could resist treasure hunting in the warm sun with the music of the crashing waves and the smell of the salt in the air? Now we plan entire vacations around our need to find better and more exotic shells. It took me three years to find a common shell known as a Turkey Wing. It’s not exotic, and everyone else in my family found one long before me, but it’s beautiful and it’s my favorite shell.

The collections that mean the most to my kids are the ones they discover themselves. My youngest daughter, Lauren must have filled twenty plastic sandwich bags with pinecones, leaves, moss, bark and small stones. I think these are the collections I like the best--collections that make a mess when dumped on the kitchen table--collections that smell like the forest on a rainy day--collections that make Lauren’s eyes glow when she shows them to me.

How do you choose a collection that’s right for you or your child? If you’re like most people, you don’t. It chooses you. The collections that are the most fun are the ones that take you by surprise. Two years ago my husband and I decided to get a few chickens for our kids to raise. We all fell in love with them. Now we have chicken memorabilia all over the place. Chances are your children have one or more collections going already. My own kids have collected everything from A to Z. Marbles, Pokemon cards, books, action figures, shells, rocks, soda can flip tops, rubber bands, Beanie Babies, and glass animals are just a few of their many treasures. My fifteen-year-old son, Jack, has often tried to convince me that the great pile of dirty cups and plates in his room are simply his latest attempt to start a new collection! Kids start collecting even as toddlers. They surround themselves with their favorite toys, and at this age (or any age) they can become as possessive as a dragon guarding treasure. When my son was small he would hide his best Batman action figures when his friends came to play. My oldest daughter Kelsey loved Richard Scarry books when she was younger. She kept them in a pile by her bed, and she always knew if one was missing. Lauren has a special collection of tiny things she started when she was only three. She keeps them in her jewelry box; a teeny rubber baby, a wee pink pig, seven sticky frogs, two very strong magnets, a copper coin from England, a few shiny beads, and her favorite rocks. She only shows these things to her very closest friends. At first glance they might not even seem like a collection, but in Lauren’s mind they are. I love her way of looking at it. Why limit yourself to collecting one type of item when there are so many things in the world to explore?

Last year, Lauren became fascinated when our neighbors started a bug collection (including only bugs that had died of natural causes, of course!). She delighted in describing each new bug to me. She noted it’s color, it’s size and shape, whether it had wings or a stinger, and the possibility of it being poisonous. When I suggested that she might start her own bug collection she was thrilled.

A few minutes later she came to me and handed me a small piece of paper with a few specks of dirt taped to it. “Mom, can you keep this for me please,” she said. I took the paper, threw it on the kitchen counter and didn’t think anymore about it until I was cleaning up for dinner and decided to throw it away. No sooner had I tossed it into the garbage can than Lauren came looking for it.

“I threw it away,” I told her. She got a horror stricken look on her face and began rooting through the garbage can. “I thought it was trash,” I said apologetically as she pulled it from the can and tried to smooth it out.

“That’s for my bug collection,” she said indignantly.

“For your bug collection?” I asked. “Some dirt taped to paper?”

“That’s not dirt mom”

“Well what is it?”

“An ant.” I

looked at it more closely. “An ant?” I asked.

“Well, it used to be,” she said.

Collecting is not only fun but can be educational too. Children love sorting things by size, shape and color. They will count, compare, organize and display their treasures. They love the sight, the feel, the smell of their collectibles. They will arrange and rearrange them, hold them, label them, carry them in their pockets, panic when they lose them, and delight when they discover them again. They may pack them away carefully only to pull them out minutes later to start the whole process over again. Without realizing it, they are practicing valuable observational and math skills.

Older children may focus more on the history of their collections, the story behind the collected pieces. They begin to record when and where their treasures were gathered, rank them from least to most important, assign them a monetary value. Like my elusive Turkey Wing, older kids crave a bit more of a challenge when collecting. The harder it is to get, the more detailed the story behind the object, the more it begins to mean. We all tell our kids that everything worth having is worth working for. Well, you want to know something? They believe it.

The older kids get, the more elaborate their displays become. They may ask for special cases or shelves or decorative boxes to house their collections. They may want to share their collections with friends and family. What a wonderful idea. Help them open a mini museum exhibit. They will love playing curator. You may find that your children already know more about their collections than you imagined. They love to have the chance to be the teacher, especially with you as their students. It’s true that you probably don’t need to know what each of the gazillion Pokémon evolve into, but by taking an interest in your child’s collection you show them that you are taking an interest in them and what’s important to them. It’s also a great way to help shy kids socialize.

Collecting is one of the easiest hobbies to start. You don’t really need any special tools, though you may find having a magnifying glass and a field guide or two might make identification easier. So, encourage your children when they express an interest in collecting, even if the item they want to collect doesn’t seem interesting to you. Who knows, you might discover that you actually have fun helping them find sticks that look like snakes or rocks that are mostly green or insects with sparkly wings. Go to the library; teach your kids how to research their interests. When you have the chance, visit one of the many museums in and around Charlottesville, or take a short road trip to Richmond or Washington.

What are you waiting for? Go for a walk with your kids, pull a plastic bag from your pocket and tell them you want to start a collection. I promise you they will fill it long before you get home. I can’t promise you that you’d want it on your kitchen table.

25 items that are inexpensive (or free) to collect

Bottle caps
Candy/gum wrappers
Cereal box toys
Key rings
Old photos
Post cards
Pressed flowers
Rubber bands
State quarters
Wheat pennies
Wind-up toys
Zipper pulls

Beverly lives in Keswick with her husband and three children. When she's not adding to her collections, she trains in Taekwon-do and writes poetry and short fiction. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including Midwest Poetry Review and Spider Magazine for Children.

Local Collections Popular with Kids

Bayly Art Museum 924-3592 best for kids: Native American Exhibit, contempory gallery has, Graphics Gallery
Kluge Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection 244-0234 Each quarter a new exhibit past themes: snakes, collecting, sea life, human hand, birds, night sky.
UVA Children’s Health Museum 924-1593 Collection of medical instruments, x-rays
UVA Museum of Natural History 982-4605 rotating hands-on collections; Summer: “endangered species” collections of animals, bones, rocks
Virginia Discovery Museum 977-1025 June collection of international games, also regularly rotating Display case has been--- Russia, toasters, kaleidoscopes, objects form Tanzania, paperweights, psanky, wind-up toys

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