Collecting hobby holds valuable lessons for children

Because I grew up in a family whose philosophy was ''don't throw anything out ,'' I learned the joy of collecting at an early age. My brother and I started collections so we wouldn't just tag along when our parents took us to weekly antique shows, flea markets, and garage sales.

The trips became much more enjoyable when I began collecting the letter ''B'' - for my initial - made of wood, glass, and metal. I had my own quest. I proudly displayed the findings of each day's adventure on my shelves and walls and reorganized them with every new acquisition.

Collecting is a great hobby to foster in young children, although many parents discourage it because of the fine line between a collection and an accumulation of junk.

A collection can teach children responsibility as they organize, clean, and take care of their memorabilia and learn what does and does not have value. It gives them a domain that's completely their own and need not be shared with siblings.

It also teaches them how to spend money wisely. After all, if children only get dollar-a-week allowances, they have to figure out how many baseball cards they can buy and still be able to afford other treats or snacks. Young collectors sometimes discover ways to earn extra money to increase their spending power.

These are important lessons that can be applied to more serious things later in life, says Ellen Liman, author of ''The Collecting Book'' (New York: Penguin) , which explains how to start, improve, and enjoy a collection.

She points out that parents can be instrumental in expanding the interests of young collectors. A child collecting seashells can be taught about marine life. A cache of museum catalogs can train the eye aesthetically. Stamp and coin collectors learn about geography and history. They can join philatelic or numismatic groups and get helpful hints and advice from other collectors.

The best children's collections don't have to cost anything. And today's freebies may eventually become collector's items. Promotional items like Burger King cardboard hats and McDonald's cutouts are great collectibles, because they're usually discarded after a few hours of play and thus become rare in a short time. Even company premiums like the prizes in Cracker Jack and cereal boxes are collectibles of the future.

Adults who collected baseball cards or comic books as children - and didn't let their mothers toss them into the trash - now may have collections worth thousands of dollars. The first issue of Batman from 1940, in mint condition, now sells for around $1,500. An original Barbie doll brings $500, and a 1952 Mickey Mantle trading card is valued at $1,700 today.

The best way to introduce a child to collecting is to look around the house for ideas, author Liman suggests. Saving mom's old perfume bottles is a nice start. So is a collection of odd buttons that have accumulated over the years. These can be divided by color and design and displayed in plexiglass boxes or sewed onto a cloth wall hanging.

Even family activities can spark new collections. On a cross-country trip, children can pick up giveaway post cards at every restaurant and hotel they visit. Menus and decorative placemats are usually free for the asking, and they serve as a record of the trip.

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