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Why kids and collecting go hand in hand

From trading cards to Snapchat followers, kids are naturally drawn to collecting things─and research firm Smarty Pants explains why.
July 5, 2016

Since the beginning of time, children have turned found objects like arrowheads, rocks and beads into treasured collections. Over the years, their collections naturally grow to include low-cost items like baseball cards and stickers, and
slightly larger items like stuffed animals and bracelets. As kids’ tastes and habits evolve, so too do their collections.

Once limited to physical items like dolls, action figures or trading cards, today’s pervasive digital environment allows virtual collections to thrive, too. Instead of just unearthing and cataloging pebbles that they find in their yards or on the playground, kids can amass a trove of Minecraft ores. In addition to compiling groups of action figures, they can earn and collect new Subway Surfers or Crossy Road characters. Older kids’ assortments of Instagram likes or Snapchat followers are a bit more elusive, but they still amount to a collection. No matter what type of collections kids prefer, both physical and digital ones share core elements.

Kids collect to develop and express their budding identities. In short, collections are a means of demonstrating passion. In much the same way an adult wine connoisseur takes great pride in his or her wine collection, a little girl who loves horses happily collects, treasures and displays her prized possession of Schleich horse figurines. The collection is an extension of herself and her interests.

A collection may not begin as a passion project for kids, though it may turn into one later. Instead, the spark to begin a collection may ignite when kids seek ways to relate to their peers. If their friends are into Pokémon, then gathering and trading Pokémon cards is a way for kids to find common ground and develop deeper relationships with each other.

Beyond developing a personal rapport, collections can provide a foundation for transactional relationships, too. Few children have the means to personally accumulate wealth, but they do have the ability to amass bracelets, trading cards or social media likes. These collections function much like money for kids, as they work hard to accrue the “assets “and share, trade and show off their “currency.” Collections are often enviable and help raise the social stature of the child.

Kids mimic adult actions—both economically and domestically. Collections offer kids the opportunity to take care of a group of items. They place extreme value on their collections and take care in expanding and nurturing them. Whether it’s lining up Star Wars action figures and posing them, or arranging and displaying a collection of Splashlings, kids take pride in the stuff that they have curated.

It’s also important to note that there is a difference between kids’ carefully procured collections of Hot Wheels cars or Lego minifigures and a large stockpile of Japanese erasers or toy bricks. While each Hot Wheels
vehicle or Lego minifigure is unique and serves a key role in kids’ play, the erasers or bricks are interchangeable. For a collection to feel substantive and valuable, the items should be unique and complement each other. They need to be sought out for a particular purpose.

What sets kids on the path to becoming collectors? Firstly, there has to be a very low barrier to entry. Many items kids collect are either free or inexpensive—seashells from family vacations, online followers and digital coins have no real cost, while blind packs of Lego figurines cost about US$4.99, and Minions figures are only US$2.99. A set of 12 Shopkins is less than US$15, or just more than a dollar apiece. The cost is low enough that kids can spend their own allowance or birthday money, and parents can feel comfortable buying them as a treat. Little by little, these small buys add up to big collections.

Both piece-count and purpose matter. It’s easy to see why the 100-card set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards is better than the 40-card pack. Kids feel that certain Yu-Gi-Oh! cards offer distinct advantages, and that different Transformers offer varying advantages in battle. Successful collectible items should be widely available, while also appearing to be scarce—or at least some components should remain elusive. It must be possible for kids to find and buy the items (or use virtual currency to do so), but the most desirable ones should be more rare. Remember the Beanie Babies craze of the 1990s? The random retirement of particular toys created a frenzy much like Boba Fett or Han Solo with a Blaster does for Star Wars collectors.

Kids take great pride in owning the rare, secret or exclusive, and they know that without these items, their collections are incomplete. This is partially why a third of kids (31%) who currently collect Shopkins want all 25 items in Series 5—each with its own purpose and personality. Without the full set of items, kids feel like they’re missing out. And it’s why kids get a fresh start with each new series that’s offered.

The act of collecting is timeless, but today’s digital climate has changed the game. Interactive media has both enabled new types of collections and trained kids to expect more from them. Today, kids can search for, acquire, amass, display and create envy for their collectibles without ever putting down their tablets. These digital collections can provide hours of endless fun and connective fodder.

Even when a collection is tangible, virtual components enhance the experience. Apps and websites that give kids the ability to catalog collections help them see what’s missing. Great digital features also enable virtual play that prevents loss or damage to kids’ prized possessions. Fast fading are the days of toting the bin full of collectibles to a friend’s house, or even into the backyard.

Julie Katz is Trend Master at Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. She focuses on kids’ play trends and digital strategy. For more information on Smarty Pants, contact Meredith Franck at 914-939-1897 or
mfranck@asksmartypants.com.

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