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Kid Passions

When he was 3, my son got his first computer CD: The Magic School Bus Explores the Solar System. Thus Sam was launched into an obsession with space. Several times a day he'd ask me to draw a map of the solar system so he could color the planets. He memorized their order and could recite all kinds of facts about them.

("Saturn's rings are made of rock, dust, and ice." "Mars is the red planet.") By age 4, he was confident enough to draw his own maps and bestow them upon friends and relatives. Although I was proud of my young "astromoner," as he referred to himself, I worried sometimes that he was a bit lost in space. When he was 6, I noticed a red spot on his backside, and he said, "Don't worry, Mom. I'm just like Jupiter  -- I have a red spot."

Of course, childhood passions aren't unusual. From a young age I was fascinated by turtles; my brother was obsessed with dinosaurs. Should you be concerned about your toddler, who loves to gaze longingly at the display of keys in front of the locksmith shop? Or your preschooler, who lives in the Jurassic period? Probably not.

"Childhood's a time of obsession," says Gery LeGagnoux, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Santa Monica, California. "The world's a new place, and when your child focuses on something specific, he's simply showing that he wants to learn all he can about that topic." And while many kids' fascinations may seem obsessive to us, they're usually just a way for kids to create some order out of our chaotic world.

Infant Interests

Babies are by nature obsessive: "Think about when a baby first notices her hand," says LeGagnoux. "She'll move her fingers around and stare at them until she understands how they work." A 6-week-old may be mesmerized by a shadow on the wall or a mobile hanging over her. By 3 months, she can use her laserlike focus to track anything of interest.

During the first year, she's learning that people and things exist even when they're out of view, and games like peekaboo reinforce the idea that Mommy continues to exist even though she can't see you. Though endless rounds of peekaboo may seem obsessive (and monotonous) to you, mastering the idea takes time  -- and repetition.

As your baby starts to crawl, then walk, she can seek out particular objects of fascination. That's when parents take notice, especially if the interest is a bit quirky. At 11 months, Jake Allison of Lake Park, Minnesota, exhibits a compelling urge to explore the ceramic caps that go over the bolts at the base of the toilet. "We have two bathrooms," says his mom, Karen, "and if I'm not fast enough closing the bathroom doors, he'll go back and forth between them, taking the caps off both toilet bases. As soon as I replace them on one, he'll make a beeline for the other!"

Linda Henry, a mom of two, is the editor of Window Fashions, a magazine for home design.

Toddler Tangents

As kids get older, their fascinations may seem to grow in intensity, since they're better able to express their feelings. From about 16 months, Anne Fognano's son developed a great affection for the vacuum cleaner. "Austen used to hug it, and when he started talking, he'd say, 'I wuv boo-boo vacuum cleaner,'" says the Leesburg, Virginia, mom. At toy stores, he would ignore the toys and stare at the plugs and cords that hung from the ceiling. At department stores, he'd walk down the aisle and identify vacuum cleaners by their make. His parents eventually had to set limits: He could look at just one vacuum per visit.

When he started muttering "vacuum cleaner" in his sleep, his mom got concerned, but he soon noticed other interesting things. Now that Austen's 4, Fognano sees it was an early manifestation of an analytical mind  -- one that now seeks out electric trains and building blocks.

Taylor Johannigman, 2, is riveted by sticky objects: tape, Post-its, and stickers. "Whenever she comes across something sticky, she peels it off and puts it somewhere else," says her mom, Char, of Findlay, Ohio. "I'm constantly taking them off her clothes, her sheets, and the floors!"

At this age, when kids are starting to learn that objects can be represented as symbols or pictures, obsessions with certain objects may lead your child to draw them repeatedly or notice them in books or photos. At about 20 months, Liam Sullivan of Reno, Nevada, was suddenly fixated on lamps. "He wanted to turn light switches on and off, over and over again, and he wanted us to draw lamps and lightbulbs," says his mom, Dana. "My husband and I must have drawn about a hundred lamps!"

Liam also loved books with lamps in them. The light fixtures in Dr. Seuss's In a People House and There's a Wocket in My Pocket! were favorites. Just as repeated readings of a favorite book help a toddler build vocabulary and comprehend the story, Liam wanted to see the light, as it were, by repeatedly watching his parents draw lamps and by looking at pictures of them in books. After six months of intensive study, he's now less focused on lighting fixtures, though "he still asks to go to the lamp department whenever we go to Home Depot!" says Sullivan.

Preschool Passions

By the time kids are 3 or 4, many of their preoccupations are inspired (even driven) by the surrounding culture  -- kids have their pick of friendly-faced dinosaurs, girl explorers, and flying buses. "Preschoolers are likely making their own decisions about which tape they want to watch or which game they want to play on the computer," says Jennifer Rosinia, an instructor of early-childhood development at the Erickson Institute, in Chicago.

Follow your child's lead and take advantage of her devotion to Barney or Dora to encourage learning. Recent research suggests that the area of the brain that processes emotions has connections to the regions where memory, learning, and problem-solving occur. So the more passionate your child is about something, the more effective a teaching tool it can be. Rosinia recalls a friend whose 5-year-old loved Thomas the Tank Engine. The boy's mom, who was homeschooling him, took this theme and applied it to math, science, and reading. "He didn't even realize that he was 'studying,' as excited as he was about Thomas," says Rosinia.

This is also the stage when gender differences may become magnified. Boys often gravitate toward cars and trains, while girls want to collect dolls or be princesses. "From the moment she wakes up, Camryn, who's three, turns herself into a princess," says Rebecca Navarro of Indio, California. "She carefully puts on her princess dress, her special shoes, and her crown, and recently, she's even started asking for makeup!"

When my daughter, Grace, was 3, she loved pigs. In addition to pointing out pigs in storybooks and wanting a pig-themed birthday party, she played mommy to her stuffed pigs, which were her "babies."

Whatever your child's interests, you can't go wrong by encouraging them. Whether you'll find it as enthralling as she does is another matter, but at least you can know that you're not just humoring her with your dozenth round of peekaboo, your umpteenth reading of Dr. Seuss, or yet another half-hour trip to Pluto and back  -- you're also helping her explore and learn about the world around her.