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Life Beyond Nintendo : It may surprise parents, but many children of the video age are still fascinated with shell collections, train villages and models of scary creatures.

July 09, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray writes regularly for The Times. and

Hobbies are out. Activities are in. At least that's what most parents probably think.

But talk to kids and you'll hear about international shell collections, train villages, bakeable sculpture, stamps from Mali and Mozambique, and plastic models of scary creatures and sports cars.

Jordan Sitkin, 11, of Burbank has been interested in hobbies since he was 5. He started building models with his father and now possesses a comic book collection, an international rock collection, and a passion for drawing and making towers from slices of clay. "It's something to go away to your room and do if you're bored," he says.

Some kids even prefer their hobbies to video games. As Jordan explains: "Hobbies are never as frustrating as video games. Video games limit you to sitting there and watching something happen. With hobbies and arts and crafts, you can do just about whatever you want."

This is exactly why hobbies are valuable for children, says Rie Rodgers Mitchell, professor of educational psychology and counseling at Cal State Northridge--and the mother of a 10-year-old son.

According to Mitchell, hobbies offer a hands-on way to experience a subject in depth, and can pique curiosity and build self-esteem. "When a child is interested and motivated in a hobby," she says, "it's a good feeling and it carries over into school performance."

There are also important social benefits to developing a hobby. Sometimes, Mitchell says, just having a special interest to talk about with another child can offer an entree into friendship. For instance, she observes, kids can spend hours trading baseball cards--a hobby that provides children with something tangible to discuss and do.

For some parents and children, sharing a hobby adds a dimension to family life that goes beyond the day-to-day routine of car-pooling and errand-running. Mitchell points out that hobby-sharing is especially helpful for parents who may sometimes have difficulty relating to their children. It gives them a way to get beyond the what-did-you-do-in-school-today questions to real issues, like, "Why can't we get this rocket to take off?"

But Mitchell warns parents never to choose a hobby for a child. Instead, she suggests, offer options and choices. Walk through a hobby store, scout out the shelves, and talk to salespeople for recommendations tailored to the child's age and interests.

Mitchell adds that parents are often tempted to buy kits recommended for children older than theirs. "Everyone thinks their child is brighter than what the box says," she reports. But she believes that it's better for children to start with something they can manage and feel good about before working up to the next level.

Hobbies, of course, can be expensive. For this reason, Mitchell advises parents to proceed cautiously and to gauge the strength of a youngster's interest before laying out substantial sums for paint sets and pottery wheels. To allow children to experiment, some craft stores offer getting-started workshops that make many of the more expensive materials available for use during the class.

Tom Gilliland, manager at Kit Kraft, a hobby store in Studio City, suggests that before even walking into the shop, parents should discuss their budget with their children, and plan accordingly. He mentions the example of a typical plastic model kit, which, with the necessary glue, paint and brushes, will cost about $20. He adds, however, that the paint and glue can be recycled on future projects. In his view, just letting children know that there is a limit to a project's cost may help them make reasonable choices.

On the other hand, as 11-year-old Jordan has discovered, hobbies don't have to cost anything to be fun. For him, a pile of stones--or shells or pine cones--can become a full-blown hobby once he has visited a bookstore or library for information on the subject. He acknowledges, for instance, that he loves to look for the names and origins of the souvenir rocks his grandparents bring back from their travels.

Whatever a child's yen, the parent's role is to facilitate the hobby, says Mitchell, and offer encouragement even when the child backs off and decides to move on to something new. A hobby, she maintains, is not a career choice. It might turn into a lifelong pursuit. But more likely, it's a blip in a child's frenetic effort to discover the world.

Getting Started

Hobbies don't just happen. They are nurtured and encouraged by parents who sense their child's interest and make related materials -- books, kits and classes -- available. Here are some resources for parents hoping to stimulate a child's pursuit of a potential hobby:


The "USA Collecting Kit" (U.S. Postal Service, $3) is sold through the post office and contains a 20-page album, stamps, hinges and a booklet about stamp collecting. Also at the post office for the budding philatelist is the free "Stamps etc. Catalog" (April to June, 1993).

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