Helping Children Discover Their Interests

31 08 2009

b y S a l l y M . R e i s

Sally Reis, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut where she serves as a Principal Investigator at the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. She is a former teacher and is a member of the NAGC Board of Directors.

For over 10 years, I worked in a school district as the coordinator of a K-12 enrichment program, and during this time the most frequently asked questions by parents of children with high potential related to how they could help their child develop his or her abilities. After 20 years of conducting research about talented young people, I am more firmly convinced than ever that the answer lies in actively seeking to identify your child’s natural interests and then spending time with your child to develop those interests. From the current success of Tiger Woods in golf to the research completed by educator Benjamin Bloom on talent development in young people, we have learned that when a child has both an interest and a talent in the interest area, that talent can be developed with the help of involved and committed parents and diligent teachers.

Some Background Research

Many different research studies demonstrate that learning is enhanced when a child is able to work in an area of his or her own selection and when interests become a major part of learning. Cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget argued that all intellectual functioning depends on the essential role played by “affective” processes such as interest. He used the term “energetic” to describe the relationship between intellectual functioning and affective processes. Other researchers believe that interests interact with personality and that it is within interest areas that the individualized and creative components of one’s personality emerge. Cognitive theorist H. Gruber postulates the “self construction of the extraordinary,” indicating that the main force in learning is a person’s own activities and interests. Gruber points out that the way a person shapes a creative life may involve the pursuit of interests rather than achievement in school or precocity in intellectual tasks.

As a parent, it is a good idea to think about your own interests and the ways you model your pursuit of these interests. Perhaps major interests you held in childhood have developed into the work you now do. If so, talk to your child about the importance of enjoying your work and pursuing your interests so he or she begins to understand the critical link between interests and future careers. These questions may help you consider current interests:

Do you have hobbies or interests that your child has watched you pursue?

Do you spend time reading books about a certain topic or interest area?

What type of creative work do you do in your spare time?

Help your child understand that you also have interests and pursue some of these together. Actively pursing interests together will provide the best possible role modeling and help your child learn that interests both enrich life and guide future career decisions.

How to Spark and Nurture Interests

If your child does not seem to have interests at the present time, there are numerous ways to spark interests. The best way is to show an interest in your child’s school experiences and in what he or she has been doing, reading, and watching on television. Ask questions and work to maintain communication about what your child is doing in school and at home. Trips to museums, art galleries, libraries, zoos, and musical and theatrical performances can all help to develop interests. Library books about a variety of topics can help you ignite potential interests in your child. Magazines cover numerous topics and offer enrichment opportunities to spark children’s interests. The same goals can be accomplished by high-quality video tapes, films, and television shows such as those available on the Discovery, Learning, and History Channels.

Once your child discovers areas of interest, you can help develop and nurture those interests. In the case of a child interested in history, you can encourage him or her to read historical fiction as well as nonfiction books including biographies, autobiographies, and other historical works. As a family, you can visit historically significant sites, the state historical society, or historical libraries. Local historical societies often have ideas for projects, such the University of  Connecticut have learned that the single best predictor of college majors and career choices made by talented youngsters has been their intensive involvement in self-selected projects based on their interests. We found that very young children with high levels of interest in computers, mathematics, or science often retain their interests even when they are encouraged by parents and teachers to do other things in order to be “well-rounded.”

Educational psychologist Joseph Renzulli defines giftedness as the interaction between above-average (but not necessarily superior) ability, task commitment, and creativity. Renzulli asserts that we develop giftedness in young people by enabling them to bring ability, commitment, and creativity to bear upon an area of intense interest.

Identifying Your Child’s Interests

How do we find and develop intense interests in young people?

Some general areas of interest usually found in children include performing arts, creative writing and journalism, mathematics, business management, athletics, history, social action, fine arts and crafts, science, and technology.

In 1977 Renzulli developed the Interest-a-Lyzer, an instrument designed to help young people identify their interests. This brief questionnaire also enables parents and teachers to learn more about their children’s interests and opens up communication between the child and his or her parents and teachers. My Way, An Expression Style Inventory, is a brief questionnaire designed by Karen Kettle to help parents and teachers learn more about how a child likes to pursue his or her interests based on the following ways of expressing interests: written, oral, artistic, computer, audio/visual, commercial, service, dramatization, manipulative, and musical. A 7-year-old who develops an interest in dinosaurs may not want to write a book about dinosaurs, but may be interested in constructing a diorama or a model of his or her favorite dinosaurs. Using My Way, students indicate their level of interest by channeling their interests into certain types of products such as designing a computer software project, acting in a play, writing stories, or filming and editing a video. For example, a 10-year-old boy with a learning disability, who is very bright but has not been doing well in school, recently completed My Way. His profile indicated that his preferred method of learning involved doing audio-visual, computer, and artistic work. The products he most frequently completed in school consistently involved written and oral work. That his preferred method of learning and the projects he completed in school did not mesh may be one important reason he was not doing well in school. The questions on the Interest-A-Lyzer and My Way are almost all open-ended or require simple check marks to complete. A few sample questions from the Interest-A-Lyzer follow. Try these out on the whole family and compare responses.

“Imagine that you have become a famous author of a well-known book.

What is the general subject of your book?

What will it be about?

What would be a good title for your book?”

“Imagine that you can spend a week shadowing any person in your community to investigate a career you might like to have in the future. List the occupations of the persons you would select.”

“Imagine that a time machine has been invented that will allow famous people from the past to travel through time. If you could invite some of these people to visit your class, who would you invite?”

One 8-year-old-girl’s response to the last question included Harriet Tubman, George Washington, John F. Kennedy, and Lee Harvey Oswald. It seemed clear that she had history as a primary area of interest, and when asked about Lee Harvey Oswald, she explained, “I don’t believe what people say happened in Dallas really happened, and I’d like to ask Oswald a few questions.”

Teachers also have developed simple questionnaires to help you identify your child’s interests. Many school districts use these parent inventories of children’s interests for planning enrichment experiences that will help develop interests. Sample questions follow. Think how you would answer these about your child.

• Describe any collections or hobbies your child has.

• What are your child’s pastimes at home or after school (trips, lessons, clubs, groups, etc.)?

• Has your child discussed any career interests with you? If so what?

• Have you noticed any talents or unusual interests, skills, or accomplishments at home?

• What types of books or television shows does your child choose to read or watch?

If you want to support your child’s interest you can work collaboratively on projects or research topics with your youngster. In addition to reading nonfiction books and visiting interesting places, children can also use “mentors-in-print” or how-to books to develop their interests in

an advanced and authentic way. Methodological books can help children learn how to do work in an area as junior professionals. If a student has an interest in history, some excellent how-to books in history include How to Trace your Family Tree (American Genealogical Research Institute Staff, 1973), How to Tape Instant Oral Biographies (Zimmerman, 1992), My

Backyard History Book (Weitzman, 1975), and Pursuing the Past (Provenzo, Provenzo & Zorn, 1984.)

Another excellent resource for students in upper elementary grades or middle school who are interested in history is History Day, a competition sponsored by each state historical society. In this annual event, students pursue topics of historical interest to them in a number of ways: individual or small-group projects, performances, or audio-visual projects, or by writing research papers. Students who are interested in history or social science research can also use The Artifact Box Network (P.O. Box 9402, Bolton, CT 06043; phone: 860-643-1514).

Teachers work with students to create a box of local artifacts that is exchanged with another class from another part of the country or world. The clues put in the box result in research about the local site as the class tries to identify the location of the artifacts from the classroom with whom they have exchanged boxes. Within each content area, many different ways exist to promote and develop interests. Science, language arts, mathematics and social studies consultants from each state department of education can usually help parents locate various clubs, organizations, or societies that can help children develop interests within these content areas.

The World Wide Web has numerous ways to help students pursue their interests. My own 8-year-old daughter recently developed an interest in hummingbirds and was able to locate a website on hummingbirds that included dozens of resources, recent photographs, and many interesting facts which she used to prepare an alphabet book on hummingbirds. You can help ignite and nurture your child’s interests. In so doing, you unlock your youngster’s high potential and pave the way for enjoyment and success. What more can a parent do?!


As you and your child embark on a journey to uncover and develop your child’s special interests, here are a few questions you can discuss together to help you begin to learn more about your child’s unique interests. To add a creative element to the conversation, pretend you are a reporter interviewing your child for a newspaper article.

1. When you take your child to the bookstore or library, what books would he or she buy or check out (mystery, biography, poetry . . .)?

2. What is your child’s favorite subject (math, science, social studies, language arts . . .)? Describe any specific interests your child has within a subject. For example, if your child enjoys language arts, he or she may get especially excited about creative writing.

3. Describe any lessons your child currently takes or has requested to take.

4. Which clubs, teams, or groups (inside or outside school) does you child belong to or has requested to join?

5. Describe any hobbies or collections your child has or has indicated an interest in starting.

6. Describe any trips your child has especially enjoyed or has requested to take (historical house, aquarium, nature hike, art museum . . . ).

7. What is your child’s favorite game?

8. What is your child’s favorite movie?

9. What is your child’s favorite TV show?

10. Has your child expressed any career interests? If so, what are they?

Twenty Preliminary Igniters for Creative Thinkers

31 08 2009

1.  Surround Yourself with Creativity

Surround yourself with creative people and reminders of creativity.   Decorate your workplace with peripherals of excellence and catalysts for creativity.  These could be pictures, quotes, or past projects.  This can be called the Ray Bradbury approach or the Sistine Chapel approach.  Find or create the work environment that ignites your creativity.  Just as important are the people that surround you.  People become more creative when they surround themselves with stimulating and creative people. This is true in the lives of Michelangelo as well as Einstein.

2.  Watch for Brain Traps

These are the emotional triggers that turn off the creativity in your mind. They could be the snap judgments, statements of fear, confusion, frustration or the prison guard of Brain traps-“I can’t”.  Try putting up a sign in your class that says, “No brain chains allowed”.

3.  Target Your Goal

There will be a time that creativity must be focused.  Ideas without goals are like climbing stairs without progress. Do you have a well-defined goal?  Keep the main thing the main thing.

4. Lean into Your Challenges

Learn to take intelligent risks in your thinking.  Bob Metcalfe (Founder of 3Com and Inventor of Ethernet) said, “Innovation requires gambling and risk taking.  We tell each other to make at least 10 mistakes a day.  If they are not making ten mistakes a day, they are not trying hard enough.”   Michelangelo’s motto in life was, “I took it as a challenge” when his father opposed his low career as a sculptor, when he carved the colossal David from a ruined piece of rock, and when he painted the Sistine Chapel.

5. Crave Inquisitiveness

Naquib Mahfouz (Nobel Prize winner) said, “You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions.”

Isaac Newton

by Calvin Miller

Sir Isaac Newton sure was smart,

Beneath the apple tree.

When one fell off and hit his head,

He said, “Wow, gravity!

For Newton was a genius

And not a common slouch.

A genius cries, “Gravity!”

Most others just say “ouch!”

6. Challenge Assumptions

Often we are hindered in our creativity because of assumptions we make.  Ask what you are assuming and challenge it.  “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

7.   Generate Alternatives

Emile Chartier said, “Nothing is more dangerous than one idea when it’s the only one you have”.   A Monomaniac is a person who has an inordinate or obsessive zeal for or interest in a single thing, idea, subject, or the like.  Expand your reading and interests.  Look for the second right answer. “If the only tool is a hammer you’ll see everything as a nail.” Abraham Maslow

8.  Lavish Symbolic Attention

If you want creativity, talk about it, talk it, and promote it. Find many ways to research and talk about it.

9.  Adjust Your Mental Blinds

Charles Kettering said, “You’ll never get a view from the bottom of a rut”.  Problems cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created them,” says Albert Einstein.

10.  Discern Similarities

Make connections and associations between topics and ideas.  Ask, “How is this like that?”

11.  Slice Up Your Elephant

Learn how to break down large dreams, problems and tasks.  When asked “Can you eat this elephant?” You can if you have the desire, time and when you slice it up into bite-size pieces.

12.  Juggle Peripheral Thinking

Learn not only to tolerate but enjoy ambiguity and complexity.  Learn to live with the unresolved.  When you think, plan to cook ideas on the side burner and the back burner. Sometimes you mind is on a ‘searching’ mode and then, while you are consciously thinking of something else your subconscious mind is on the ‘finding’ ode.

13.  Develop Ancillary Use Thinking

Ask yourself “What else can this be used for?” George Washington Carver found 300 uses for the peanut.  He called this “chemergy”.  Let the raw materials from unusual items and places combine into something creative.

14.  Abandon Conventional thinking

One person made this observation about Einstein, “Part of his genius was his inability to understand the obvious”.  Practice iconoclastic thinking and learn to trust your crazy ideas.

15.  Plan Serendipitous Developments

Many of the great inventions and discoveries were accidents.  But many of these so-called accidents were after hard work and an open mind.  Be open to new directions.

16.  Listen Naively

Listen without expert ears.  Stop thinking or saying that you have heard an idea before.  Listen as if you are hearing an idea for the first time without prejudgment.  Talk to someone outside of the field who is not familiar with the project.

17.  Latch on to Breaking Trends

Catch the wave of futuristic thinking.  “The best ideas are not years ahead of their time but 15 minutes before their time.”  Woody Allen

18.  Make Innovation and Change a Continuous Event

Be prepared and create innovations which are large sweeping and dramatic changes as well as Kaizen (From the Japanese Kai meaning change and zen meaning good) which are continual incremental improvements.

19.  Revitalize Procedures

Learn the difference between effective and efficient   Effective is accomplishing a task decisively but with possible excess of time, material, and/or effort. Efficient is accomplishing a task with precision, economically with little or no excess of time, material and/or effort. Learn when it is the right time to use each of these.  What time wasting activities keep you from creativity?

20.    Cultivate the five powers of mental concentration


The mental act of deciding, establishing and adherence to an aim


Persevering in an effort for a considerable time regardless of seeing results


Hold firmly to a course or direction


Sticking to the focus of the goal


Sustaining one’s spirit following defeats