Photo: Ka Young Lee
Oh, there’s the ophthalmoscope,” says five-year-old Freya during a recent checkup, accurately naming the hand-held instrument her doctor is using to examine her eyes. Ever since Freya was two and saw a couple of episodes of Doc McStuffins, she’s been obsessed with anything medical, says her mom, Allison Anderson.
“We have a ridiculous amount of play medical tools. Every day, she uses the stethoscope, magnifying glass and blood pressure cuff to examine the family, her stuffies and even the dog,” she says.
For Freya’s third birthday, she had a Doc McStuffins party, and for the past few Halloweens, she’s dressed up as the Disney doc, a nurse and a vet. Anderson is a nurse and so is her mom, so Freya likes to flip through medical textbooks, too.
It’s cute when your preschooler gets super interested in trucks or dinosaurs or medical instruments for months or even years. But is it, well, normal?
As it turns out, yes.
About a third of preschoolers get really into one particular thing, developmental experts say. (The obsessions can be pretty quirky, too—one study from the University of Virginia found a kid who was deeply into blenders; another was fascinated by American presidents.) Known as “intense interest” in child development circles, it often happens in the two- to six-year-old age range for a couple of reasons, say researchers: The interest in pretend play and imaginary worlds is generally at its highest between ages three and five, and kids this age are wired to focus intently on just a few things.
Plus, they crave routine, and so when other parts of their lives are changing, like when they’re moving to a big-kid bed or starting preschool, they find comfort in familiar things.
Casey Jagosky’s son, Henry, fell in love with all things Lego at the age of three and a half when his little sister, Charlotte, was born, says his mom. “My husband, Rob, brought some of his old basic sets from his parents’ place, and the second the Lego came into the house, that was it,” Jagosky says. “I think part of the appeal, at first, was that it meant spending time with Dad that didn’t include a new baby.” However, Henry, now five, is still totally a Lego fiend who starts building before breakfast, talks at length about his creations with his family and teacher, is a huge fan of Lego clothes and movies, and lobbies to vacation at Legoland.
Being an expert just feels good, says Kelly Thornton, a preschool supervisor in Regina. “They know the topic so well, and that makes kids feel successful,” she says. Discovering they can build on knowledge is powerful as well. “Say it’s dinosaurs: It starts with the basic understanding of a dinosaur and then it goes further and further,” says Thornton. “They learn all the names, and it grows; it isn’t just stagnant.” Plus, the positive adult attention for, say, correctly identifying a 1997 Camaro can be a little addictive, too.
While parents may get a bit weary of the endless fascination with T. Rex, it’s best to embrace the obsession, or at least to remain neutral about it, being supportive while exposing them to other interests. Researchers have found that when kids are really into a topic there can be some pretty awesome payoffs: a longer attention span; increased knowledge and persistence; a greater tendency to ask questions; and deeper comprehension and processing skills. In other words, obsessed kids can become better-than-average learners.
You can also use the interest to extend the learning, as well as encourage other behaviours, says Thornton. “If we have kids who are obsessed with vehicles, we also count the wheels; point out the shapes of the stop and yield signs; and get out the tape, scissors and crayons to make maps and signs,” she says. Jagosky agrees. “A minifigure is a pretty good incentive to get Henry to do something like complete a week’s worth of chores.”
You might be concerned that your kid’s obsession is a little…much. An interest that requires only screen time should be steered in a healthier direction, says Thornton. “If they’re obsessed with Mario games, encourage them to build or draw theirs own Marioland,” she suggests.
Infatuation with one topic is also a sign of autism or global developmental delay, Thorton says. But if they’re not showing a cluster of other symptoms (like a marked lack of eye contact or an inability to follow your finger when you point at something), it’s likely nothing to worry about.
Studies have found boys are generally more likely than girls to zero in on one interest, although it’s not yet clear whether that’s due to biology or social constructs (for example, how toys are marketed to kids). Like most phases, kid obsessions do usually fade, often when school starts and there are so many competing interests throughout the day. Or maybe it’s an enduring love, and you do have a future mechanic or paleontologist or soccer statistician or costume designer on your hands.