As soon as kids can hold objects while moving, they seem driven to collect and cart things from one place to another. When our oldest was just over one year, I recall her filling a small blue bucket with pebbles, leaves, twigs and seeds. She carried the full bucket to a new spot only to dump out its contents and repeat the whole process. Since then, her compilations have steadily become more focused and personal, and she'll undoubtedly further honed her collections, taking great pride in curating, tending and sharing them with others.
Sound familiar? If you are like us, you have wondered, Why do kids collect and cart things? It turns out that children are collectors by nature—and for good brain-building reasons. So, if kids naturally collect, and collecting is good for kids, parents have an easy onramp to a worthwhile activity—just head outside and hand them an empty egg carton. This simple (and cheap) tool helps to focus kids on collecting. Its very design also makes it easy for kids to see the individual items as well as their relationships to one another, supporting categorization. Try some of our favorite prompts to get them started. The rest is easy—that is, until you find yourself eating 6-egg omelets each morning to keep up with their collecting.
- Kick off: There are countless ways to turn an egg carton into a collecting and learning tool. No matter which you try, start by telling kids that this ordinary egg carton is now their very own treasure box.
- Prompt to enhance learning: You can either set them loose to collect as they desire or give them a prompt to suggest what kind of treasure to seek. Here are some examples:
Whatever looks interesting (ages 2+)—“Would you like to fill your box with things that you like/that look really neat?”
Sensory hunt (ages 3+)—“Do you think you can fill your treasure box with things that feel really neat/soft/rough? What if you used your nose (ears) to hunt and filled your box with things that smell (make a sound)?"
Size (ages 2-4)—”What things can you find that are just the right size to fit in these cups? What objects are too big?”
Simple categories (ages 2+)—As soon as children start to sort things by category (most 2 year olds can do this), they can hunt for objects that fit a particular category. Easy "starter" categories include things with interesting or similar color, shape or texture.
High level categories (ages 4+)—Older children may be able to search for 6 different things that are alike in a more abstract way, further developing the ability to make connections. Such categories might include: things animals eat; things that creep or crawl; parts of a plant; things that your best friend would love; things that your brother/sister would find icky; things that would make great features for a mud face; etc.
All different (ages 4+)—To help kids understand the differences between things, encourage them to collect things that are all different in a certain category. Some examples: all different colors, all different textures or all different smells. Note: This is more challenging than it sounds, especially if you use the whole dozen.
- Guess the category (ages 5+)—Let kids pick their own category as they search. Then, as they show you their collection, you guess what the 6 objects have in common.
Why is this activity great for kids?
As our young ones (~1.5-5 years old) collect, they repeat universally common behaviors called schema that parents worldwide recognize and that experts believe are important for brain development. This kind of collecting supports three particular schema: transporting, connecting, and enveloping/enclosing.
Also, as a child decides which objects are in or out of a given collection, she learns to categorize. As she grows older and more capable, the categories she uses grow more sophisticated. Kids need to categorize in order to make connections—an essential skill that will allow them to make sense of what they read, hear and discover in the classroom and the world beyond. As a child grows older (ages 5+), his collections will have more meaning, giving him ways to develop a sense of self, develop socially and unearth lasting passions.
Finally, the process of collecting and the final collections themselves are both reflections of your child—and we all know that young kids love to talk about themselves! So, take this opportunity to develop your child's communication and language skills. Ask them questions that get them chatting and thinking. Some examples: How did you find these treasures? Which is your favorite and why? What would you look for if you had one more cup to fill in your treasure box and why?; How are the treasures in your box similar? How are they different? Who else might like this collection and why do you think so?