By Victoria Metcalf 25/04/2016

Children have a wealth of information to teach us if we pause to observe their simple rituals as collectors and curators.

They’d been playing happily on the wharf, my daughter and a new same-age friend she’d met just minutes before in the restaurant where we’d just eaten lunch. They’d cemented their bonding whilst peering down the hole around a wharf pile in the loading platform below. Totally fascinated by the mesocosm surrounding it of fish, algae, mussels and toe and finger tickling shrimps.

Then they eventually took off to the shore – pale, long hair flying in the breeze as they ran to explore the mudflats. They seized on interesting stones, sticks, shells and even dead, soggy, water-laden crabs that the other girl emphatically decided were going home with her. Her mother, both amazingly and wonderfully, didn’t bat an eyelid and delicately placed the floppy crab bodies in a tissue ready for their next journey.

The commonality of kids as collectors and curators

We mothers connected over the commonality of this practice our children have of collecting all manner of natural found objects to take home. These stick, stone, bone, shell, feather, dead insects, dead leaves and other interesting object collections fill both of our houses. And they are continually being added to. I know we’re not alone in this phenomenon. Sometimes we may despair of the clutter and the ‘not another stick’ scenario. However, deep down we realise this is just part of being a kid.

And it struck me as we spoke that children are these amazing innate collectors and curators when we provide the optimal conditions for this to occur. Such conditions are plenty of access to natural spaces and opportunities to freely explore.

It’s the kind of practice that adults went nuts over in Victorian times. Collectors travelled all over the world in search of exotic rarities, and plunged many species into decline as they filled their bags to overflowing. Perhaps the Victorian collectors were simply trying to recreate an optimal childhood?

Our children naturally gravitate towards this act of collecting and can place great import on it. In contrast to the Victorians, children are likely to gather seemingly more mundane found objects and collect from closer to home. Typically, and thankfully too our little collectors don’t plunder species.

Collecting and curating are important skill building childhood activities
Collecting and curating are important skill-building childhood activities

Supporting little explorers

It helps as modern day parents if we show an interest in the found objects so excitedly thrust in our faces. Perhaps too, a chance to discuss with our children what the collection object might mean/be/do.

For example, as questions to begin exploration:

“What does that mean when we see a shell inside a rock like this?”

“What part of an animal do you think this bone is? What animal do you think this bone comes from?”

“That’s a really neat feather. What bird do you think it might be from? Perhaps we could look in our birds of New Zealand book?”

“What a great pile of sticks. What could you build with those?”

Beyond just providing a space and time for collecting to occur in, our willingness as parents to take these collections home to the ‘museum of the child’, can catalyse the next stage – curation. Home might be where the child systematically sorts and organises their collections. This might be too where they engage in research using online tools like Naturewatch or guidebooks or good old Google to better understand what they have found.

Curating logic

Our children though, often start to consider their collections in situ. Stones might be constructed into towers, sticks into forts, shells arranged in spirals with feathers. This is all before some or all of the collection objects are bagged up to bring home.

This play-based learning allows assignment of categories as well as consideration of form, function, weight, size, engineering concepts such as structure, gravity and balance and so on. In other words, our children are critically thinking about and experimenting with their objects. In doing so they are exploring maths, science and engineering (components of STEM, minus the technology).

Interdisciplinarity comes naturally to kids

Importantly, though the arts are also critical to this exploration. In making a pattern with shells in the sand, in dancing with the feathers up and down the beach, in performing a show with the dead crabs on a sandcastle, our children are clearly demonstrating the integration of arts with STEM, commonly known as encompassing STEAM approaches. Arts and science are connected, not separate from each other, as essential elements for making sense of the world we live in.

We know how important opportunities for play in natural spaces are for childhood development and wellbeing. Perhaps an important part of that connection with nature is the opportunity to make sense of the natural world? – to collect and systematically order or curate, to ponder and philosophise over. And also to create, to make something aesthetically beautiful and mathematical.

After having this realisation that an essential part of childhood is the chance to collect and curate, I found myself again collecting and sorting shells, bones and feathers with my daughter, this time on Kaiteriteri Beach. I put my thoughts to her about her being a museum collector and curator.


Children as curators and collectors.
Bones, feathers, shells, stones, sticks and dead insects are all commonly collected items for children.

It seemed like the concept of being like a museum collector was a no-brainer for her. She likes doing it because as she says it’s “kind of science-y and I like science”.

We then discussed why take them home? What purpose did this act of curation serve for her? For my daughter and likely for other kids it’s an amalgamation of a few concepts. The collection serves as a history record, like a life story, of the things she has done and the places she has been. These natural souvenirs are a prompt for her that she can go back to to relive episodes.

But for her, she also talks of the pleasure of re-examining her collections and “rediscovering what treasures” she has. Also, she spoke of the potential to use her collection to create works of art. And that she could use things like her stones to explore weight and size etc. Again she clearly outlined the blending of the arts with the sciences.

The concept of kids as curators has been around for some years. This concept has been applied mainly in the museum space and principally limited to the arts. For example, children taking over responsibility for curation of an art exhibition. Two such initiatives, Art Detectives, run by the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky and Kid Curators LLC, focus on the power of observation, discovery, collaboration and problem solving, packaged in an educational format. There is though a considerable difference between these structured learning opportunities versus the free-play the concept arises from.


Whilst stopped at an intersection my eyes were drawn to advertising on the outside of a pet store. “Better than nature” it said. What can indeed be better than nature? Children demonstrate through their collecting and curating of natural objects (and typically in preference to manmade objects) that technology may be the word de jour, but in observing this collecting and curating in action, technology serves simply as an accessory to understanding our world.

It’s all more SEAM than STEAM. This may seem like a controversial idea with the current push to have all our children having extensive technology exposure from a younger and younger age. Perhaps learning to code at 7 isn’t the answer after all?

In the meantime, the latest collections have made it home safely. There’s some sand and stones, in particular, to add to our catalogues of adventures as told through the geology of the places we’ve been.

What collections do you have at home?