Class Menagerie

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Caleb Wilson doesn't just visit the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium - the 5-year-old recreates it in his basement.

The kindergartener, with the help of his parents and grandparents, has built an amazing miniature zoo in the basement of his Dublin home. In doing so, he's not unlike many young children who develop a passionate interest in a topic.

The youngster started with a zoo play set about two years ago and has since expanded to a display that covers multiple tables. Caleb regularly recreates exhibits from the Columbus Zoo and also designs his own. He studies animal habitats with his parents and interviews the docents at the zoo about animal behavior to ensure the accuracy of his displays.

When Caleb was younger, he sometimes erred by putting predators and their prey in the same areas, he said.

"I've learned more about how we can keep the animals safe and make great exhibits at the same time," he said.

Caleb's love of his zoo has led to lessons about geography and zoology and even provided opportunities to teach him early literacy skills, said his mother Holly Wilson, a former fourth-grade teacher.

"The teacher in me sees all sorts of connections and possibilities in this," she said.

She and her husband, Matt, encourage Caleb to follow his passion as long as he remains interested in other pursuits as well. Caleb also studies Taekwondo, attends swimming lessons and enjoys riding his bike.

Holly helps Caleb document his work by photographing the displays and taking notes for him.

"When he gets older, I want him to know we took him seriously and really cared about his passion," she said.

Even Caleb's extended family embraces his hobby. His grandparents take photographs of animals when they travel, buy animals for the zoo and help him with his displays.

"I think everybody in our whole family knows about our zoo," Caleb said.

An Expert Opinion on Early Passion

As a member of the Indiana Association for the Gifted, Carol Bainbridge has studied children who develop a keen interest in a particular topic. Since Caleb Wilson has just started kindergarten, his parents haven't been approached about testing him for a gifted program, but as a former teacher, Holly Wilson said she recognizes that he has already met many of the state's academic standards for kindergarten.

We asked Bainbridge, who also serves as the expert on gifted children, for her thoughts on children with a passion for exploring one topic.

If a child shows an extreme interest in learning about one particular thing, should parents worry?

An extreme interest in learning about one particular thing is not necessarily a cause for concern. Gifted children can have intense interests and want to know as much as possible about their current topic of obsession.

When they are satisfied with a topic, they may move on to another topic. Or they may stick with the same obsession for months or for years. I know plenty of gifted kids who have changed their obsessions and I know some who have simply given up obsessions. I also know some gifted kids who have never relinquished their obsession with a topic they focused on in grade school.

Are there ways a parent can make a topic become more encompassing - for instance, a passion for dinosaurs could include ideas of evolution, botany and food chains?

There are always ways a parent can make a topic more encompassing. As with all interests, I would say that parents should follow a child's lead. Does a child have a passion for dinosaurs? OK, then introduce the child to connected topics.

See which topics the child shows more interest in and help the child continue pursuing that interest. For example, if the child starts out interested in dinosaurs, find books and videos on connected topics like evolution and botany or on paleontology or geology.

Children don't have ready access to information so they are dependent on us adults to help them explore all the world has to offer. We can use current interests to help them learn about related subjects, which they may have an interest in.

What can parents do to foster a child's interest in a particular topic?

This is both an easy and a difficult question to answer. It's easy because I can say that parents want to encourage that interest in any way possible. It's hard because the ways to encourage the interest may not be obvious or easy to find.

For example, if a child demonstrates an interest in art, parents should buy art supplies and take their child to art museums. There are other possibilities, but those are the easiest ones. If a child is interested in music, get him or her involved in music: Check out different musical instruments get lessons, sign up for community choirs.

Again, it can be finding the opportunities that are difficult. Is the child interested in science? Find science kits, find science program in schools, in the community, or in local museums. No matter what the interest is, parents want to find ways to help the child explore those interests.

Tips for parents to help children pursue their passions

  • Visit the library and help your child find books to learn more about his or her passion. Focus not only on the outcome (i.e. being a musician), but on the work and preparation that goes into succeeding in that area - learning to read music, practicing with an instrument and exploring educational options.
  • Help your child find age-appropriate ways to pursue their passion. If they love animals and are too young to volunteer at a shelter, they might try pet sitting.
  • Recognize that children will love your support, but also that their interests may change over time.
  • If possible, provide your child the chance to meet an adult who works in the field where his or her interest lies.
Source: Judy Burke, managing editor of Highlights Magazine