If you know a few kids, you probably know at least one that is obsessed with dinosaurs. They want to wear the latest dinosaur t-shirts, have dino decorations all over their room and know more about them than we ever knew. This level of knowledge often surprises us but in the world of psychology, it is known as having ‘intense interests‘.
About one out of three children will have at least one of these intense interests in their life. It could be dinosaurs, fossils, astronomy or anything in-between. Typically, the obsession becomes obvious when they are between the ages of 2 and 6 but it will eventually fade. In some instances, however, the interest just keeps going and may stick with them for the majority of their lives.
When studies were done at the universities of Wisconsin and Indiana, something interesting was found. They discovered that a child who has an intense interest tends to do well when they are older. Joyce M. Alexander of Indiana University and her team studied these types of intense interests. Especially those that require a child to think ‘outside the box’ tended to “enhance perseverance, improve attention and enhance skills of complex thinking as the processing of information.”
Alexander said that the ‘conceptual interest’ was different than situational interests. If the child were interested in a dinosaur’s roar, that was in the moment but if they loved dinosaurs in general, it was conceptual.
In some case, it would also improve linguistic skills and point toward a higher level of understanding. Psychologists feel that the way a child studies dinosaurs helped them with problem-solving and formulating strategies later in life.
When studies were conducted at The Yale University and the University of Virginia, they found that intense interests in children do not seem to be associated with the parent’s interest. The obsessions they have developed in the first year of life and didn’t typically need prodding from the parents.
The problem with most of the intense interests is that they only lasted between six months and three years. Only one out of 5 children still had the same obsessions as they did when they were younger once they were old enough to go to school.
This may not be the fault of the child. Research shows that they no longer have the time to devote to their interest so it fades quickly. Their time is then filled with acquiring general knowledge in school. The interests of their new friends may also play a role.
Parents may not play a role in the development of intense interests but they can do their part to help nurture it. They can share interesting facts associated with their obsession. When a child learned about the subject of their intense interest, it helped them more than just pretending with the interest.
Alexander also found that there was a difference between the way boys and girls developed these interests. It may be their method of exploration or the subject of the interest that makes a difference.
Girls usually explore with their imagination and are therefore geared more toward literacy or arts. Boys tended to gather information on their interests.
Alexander things this might be due to boys setting rules and searching for facts. Marketing aimed at parents might also be to blame because it shapes perceptions of what they may be interested in.