February 24, 2024


Science It Works

How Kids Become Adults Obsessed with Machines

From the August 2020 issue of Car and Driver.

My first love was Duesenbergs. I liked my Tonka trucks and Hot Wheels well enough, but those blue-chip 1930s Duesys had an alchemical combination that spoke to me: a mixture of engineering excellence, outrageous performance, understated elegance, American immigrant ingenuity, Midwestern pluck, and, especially, underground exclusivity. Not that a seven-year-old boy in Detroit in the 1970s had those words, but loving Duesenbergs felt like knowing the password into a secret society. I once did an extra-credit report on Fred and Augie Duesenberg. I visited the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum (ACD) in Indiana. When I had my bar mitzvah, my cake was shaped like an SJ Rollston coupe.

Though we come from wildly diverse backgrounds, those of us who love cars often share similar origin stories of hoarding toy cars or of obsessively naming the make and model of every vehicle we passed. We all were once kids who fell in love with machinery, with bulldozers and garbage trucks and race cars. And based on the fact that you’re reading this magazine, you haven’t outgrown playing with cars. How does that happen? And why?

“Our studies show that about half of kids pick up a sustained interest by the time they’re four,” says Joyce Alexander, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University. “And that parents reported these interests as early as 18 months.”

Alexander is an expert in children’s acquisition of play interests. She is also a lead researcher on a longitudinal study that has followed 215 children for 16 years, tracking their hobbies from early childhood into adolescence to examine how passions develop, how they’re maintained, and how they’re dismissed. Understanding these things is important in the best of times but maybe especially now, when so much of what we used to take for granted is uncertain and even more happens at home.

Parents have a strong role in fostering their children’s interests, particularly in the early years. “If the opportunities are not offered, they will never be taken up,” Alexander says. “And because young kids have no buying power, they’re dependent on the parent to provide them with materials, to take them places, to find videos.”

According to Alexander, these early interests are encouraged by communication. Parents take the time to answer questions, to read to kids and encourage them to read. They give kids the tools they need to explore deeper. My dad took me to the public library to research the Duesenberg brothers, dragged my siblings with me to Indiana to visit the ACD mecca, and consented to that ridiculous wheeled dessert on my 13th birthday, all of which helped catalyze my weird fascination.

But it was my weird fascination, something I recognized as a passion all on my own. And while all sorts of objects and topics can become the source of a child’s preoccupations, there is one overarching similarity: Children are drawn to these things to help explore their place in the world.

“The first occupation of a child is play,” says Chris Down, chief design officer for Mattel, the company that produces Hot Wheels and Matchbox toys. “And when a kid starts to develop a particular interest—and I’ll take cars as an example—they may get their first toy car at a very young age. They may like how it rolls across the floor. They may like the detail of how it looks. And as a primitive plaything, it is fun to play with as well.”

According to Alexander, before the age of two, kids don’t even recognize a toy car as representative of a real-world object. They’re drawn to its appearance, to the movement of its wheels, to their ability to control its direction. Only later do they understand that it’s a scaled-down version of something real.

Some kids take this new understanding and they focus it on becoming assemblers, gathering cars or car information into a collection that helps expand their subject knowledge. Others may take this obsession in a different direction. They may begin to construct narratives, often ones that place them in a position that’s hard to come by in their real lives.

“When they’re inside of vehicles, typically, kids are strapped into the back, and they have no agency about direction or destination,” says Roberta Golinkoff, director of the Child’s Play, Learning, and Development Lab at the University of Delaware, where she studies the connections between play and cognitive growth. “But when they’re presented with these replicas, they have all the power.” This includes dominion over vehicles’ seemingly supernatural ability to move on their own. “When they play with them,” Golinkoff says, “they control the magic.”

Yet, in contrast to other childhood obsessions, like unicorns or aliens, cars are not actually magical. And their reality may contribute to any ongoing engagement. According to Alexander: “The fact that this thing that they’ve been learning about really does exist—and they can go see it, they can touch it, they can take the engine apart, they can work with their father to rebuild the brakes—it may be that its social dimension might continue to enhance that connection over time, because we know that parent interaction matters. And if it becomes a significant way that the parent and child interact in a positive way, I could imagine that would help the interest to maintain.”

By around the age of eight, children begin to connect their interests to their identity. They start joining clubs, they attend events, and they hang out with like-minded friends, learning together and from each other. They geek out in all the best ways.

“Some research shows that these out-of-school activities can kind of act as an inoculation against losing an interest over time,” says Alexander. “But the activities have to be high quality, and they have to maintain that awe and curiosity that got the child involved in the interest to begin with.” So just sending your kids to karting camp won’t keep them car focused if they’re not learning new skills, making friends, or improving their lap times.

Around high school, some kids may find new applications for their affections as they become exposed to higher-level knowledge. Teachers play a key role in this, encouraging kids to bring their interests into class. An adolescent who loved cars as a kid might dig deeper thanks to a newfound understanding of physics or design, for instance. “The real skill development that happens in high school builds confidence and can even set a student off on a trajectory to consider their interest as the foundation for a career,” Alexander says.

Of course, there are just as many ways for kids to become uninterested in a topic. While shifting interests—from cars to gemstones to medieval torture—may seem capricious, this relinquishing is often based on an inability of the gatekeepers in kids’ lives to keep up with their growing needs. “If adults provide only boring or low-quality activities, that can lead to what we call an ‘off-ramp,’ ” says Alexander. That’s when the guitar ends up in the closet under a pile of clothes, the art kit gets lost under the couch, or the car magazine gets recycled. Maintaining interests can be particularly difficult for families that lack what Alexander calls “social capital,” which she defines as “the resources to continue to expose their children to more and more interesting activities.”

An interest can also flounder if someone relevant crushes it, even unwittingly. “We had one of our girls who was really interested in biology, and she was really delving into that,” Alexander says. “But whenever she was getting recognition by her teacher, it was for her artwork.”

And even knowing all this, there is no surefire recipe for making a child into a car lover. Sometimes even when kids have social capital and adult encouragement, they just don’t engage. “I had one parent who was determined to have a science-related girl,” Alexander says. “But the girl only wanted to play with Barbies. All I could say was, ‘I’m sorry, this is who she is now.’ “

That said, one of the things Alexander has discovered over time is that even if kids don’t immediately respond to a parent’s encouraged interest, they sometimes find it later in life, bolstered by positive memories. “So I think laying the foundation is always a good thing, using activities and exposure,” she says. “But don’t get frustrated if the child doesn’t take it up right away.”

Even self-fueled passions may fade before eventually reemerging as a hobby in adulthood. I should know. In college, my love of cars gave way to my focus on creative writing. But I picked up cars again once I started writing for magazines, combining my childhood interest with my new occupation as a nonfiction writer. One of the highlights of my car-writing career? Driving 1930s Hollywood star Gary Cooper’s Duesenberg SSJ roadster.

The Original Car Play

According to Joyce Alexander, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University, the way kids play can be organized into four categories:

  • Procedural play is structured around rules and manifests as an interest in sports and games.
  • Conceptual play is organized around the accumulation of facts and information as well as objects.
  • Creative play is based in the exploration of flexible materials like Lego or art supplies.
  • Dramatic play consists of role-playing in which the child is central to the story and toys are props.

“Some of the kids interested in cars fall into conceptual play because they’re interested in collecting facts about brands or models or engines,” Alexander says. “And sometimes children with car interests fall into dramatic play because they’re pretending to be race-car drivers and racing and crashing with their friends.”

Notably, Alexander tells us that kids who gravitate toward these two subsets of play tend to have stronger cognitive skills than children in the other groupings. Not that you needed more evidence to know that car-loving kids (and adults) are geniuses. —BB

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