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Nurturing a child’s intense interests

Key points

  • Allowing time and space to notice, recognise, and respond to the child’s interests and dispositions
  • Delving deep into new knowledge stretches adults as well as children
  • It takes a village to support and sustain a child’s gifts

Intense interests and exceptional abilities are recognised characteristics of giftedness. These can be nurtured by an holistic approach. Whānau and kaiako are attuned to a child's current learning dispositions and create an environment that allows for learning through uninterrupted, self-directed play.

Introducing twins Eliza and Amber

Tracey Hill is a whānau member at Cornwall Park Playcentre, and a parent at Nature Kids, an early learning service in Hastings. She is the mother of fraternal twin girls, Eliza and Amber. As Tracey says, “Even though they were born at the same time and in the same place, they are completely different.”

Eliza's sister Amber is, in Tracey’s words, "out to have fun" and is very popular. She is fiercely protective of, Eliza, and they are, like most twins, incredibly close. Tracey says, “One of the things you learn as a mother of twins is that you are not the main person in their lives. I have had to learn that Amber is the one Eliza turns to, and vice versa.”

Twins Eliza (on the left) and Amber playing on a swing together

Image: Twins Eliza on the left and Amber

When the twins were about 2 years old, Tracey sent them separately, one day a week, to Nature Kids. The idea was to spend some one-on-one time with her active, curious daughters. That was when Eliza’s dispositions became more obvious.

Exceptional persistent curiosity

Eliza talked early, but not in a way that made Tracey wonder about this. However, on the days when she was with Tracey by herself, Eliza asked questions non-stop. Not just ‘why’ questions, but ‘how’, ‘where’, ‘what’, and ‘when’ questions. Kaiako at the Playcentre, the early learning service, and at the school where Tracey teaches part-time, confirmed that this intense and persistent curiosity is exceptional.

Tracey says, “I think it was the fact that the answers we offered her were not enough to satisfy her curiosity that made us wonder about how she learns. For example, when she was two, she became really interested in time and how it was measured in months and years. We had hundreds and hundreds of questions about this. Eventually, after looking through calendars by herself, she created symbols for each of the months and then added children’s birthdays. This was all self-directed.”

Exploration that is holistic and transformative

Eliza paints her stomach as part of her whole body experience exploring saturation.

It became apparent that the way Eliza explored and experienced her world was not the way Amber and other children her age did. When Tracey explained why something worked in the way it did, she noticed that Eliza would pause and process before paraphrasing the information back. 

Tracey says, “We will explain something, like saturation (a current fascination), and Eliza will listen intently. Then she will tell you what it means in her way. She talks it out. But more than that, she has to experience her interest completely which, at the moment, means she will transform herself – cover herself entirely in paint and water to feel what saturation means.”

Eliza mid jump into a muddy puddle in the sandpit to explore saturation.

Nurturing intense play

Following intense interests is a gift that is nurtured in an environment where thorough, deep, and meaningful exploratory play is understood as part of a bigger inquiry. This can be challenging for others – kaiako and children.

Eliza has a very strong agenda for her learning. Sometimes she struggles to accept the ways other children want to play with and alongside her. Tracey says, “Because Eliza is so involved in her own world it can be a bit intense at times, especially when other children want to join in. She tends to ‘correct’ them, which puts them off. It gets very difficult to explain it all.”

Even so, Eliza has a highly developed sense of fairness and is easily hurt. It is not unusual for her to talk out the nuances of everyday interactions and relationships. "She really wants to do the right thing," says Tracey. Amber is Eliza’s social role model and Eliza learns from her. She is also Eliza’s strongest advocate. 

For Eliza, her intense interests and exceptional abilities are supported by the holistic, whānau approach of the Playcentre and kaiako in the ELS.

A bronze beetle made out of wooden blocks with a white board drawn sign beside it.

Image: Eliza's bronze beetle block image with signage.

Questions to think about

  • How does your environment support children with intense interests?
  • What intentional teaching strategies might you bring to identify and nurture the ‘Elizas’ in your service?
  • How could you prepare for transitions to school for children like Eliza?

Useful resources

Dean, J. & Delaune, A. (2019). Supporting young gifted children through transitioning from early childhood to school. He Kupu, Vol 6 (1) pp. 19 - 25

Delaune, A. (2016). Emotional, social and emotional relationship development for gifted and talented children in early childhood education. He Kupu.Vol. 4 (4) np

Ministry of Education, (2009). Te Whatu Pōkeka. Kaupapa Māori assessment for learning. Early childhood exemplars. Wellington, NZ. Learning Media

Ministy of Education, (2019). Learning support action plan. Ministry of Education. Retrieved from