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A Flea Market Field Trip

How kids can learn about collecting, bargaining, history at the flea market

My husband, David, and I are antiques hounds. We filled our old house with old things because we think they're well made and unique: You're not going to find a circa-1920s lollipop-shaped drugstore scale at Macy's. But we couldn't expect our kids to listen quietly to an auctioneer or keep their hands off the art glass in antiques shops. Our first trip to this flea market, held on 34 acres of a former farm, was therefore a last-ditch attempt to include them in our hobby.

We suspected the kids might like the exploring and running around, as well as the occasional find: the 1940s-era stamp pad set, the box of theater costumes. But we were surprised to find that they learned so much about collecting, bargaining, history, and their own tastes. They now see the flea market as the ultimate treasure hunt. Still, the sheer volume of stuff can overwhelm kids, so I've developed a few age-based strategies that seem to foster their treasure hunting spirit.

All ages

To mute the gimmes, we sometimes give each kid just one dollar. We illustrate the difference between "want" and "need" by asking them to imagine their find at home, and if they think it would really get much use. We often leave the flea market empty-handed, and, to our relief, the kids don't seem to mind. Like any good collector, they believe they'll find the real treasures next time.

Toddlers

I tell the young ones that we will try to spot one or two categories of their favorite things: dinosaurs, for instance, or kittens. We once met a couple whose two toddlers were focused on finding all the leashed dogs wandering about. I realized this was introducing them to one of the pleasures at the heart of collecting — finding different kinds of the same thing.

You can also investigate what your kids fixate on most. Toddlers often like to explore the insides of things, so let them — assuming those insides don't contain loose parts or old paint.

Preschoolers

Kids this age really enjoy identifying their own favorite things. When they do, ask what appeals: color, size, shape, texture? They're forming their taste, and the flea market lets them do it among the doodads of many periods. My 4-year-old, Phoebe, who normally can't see past anything princessy, froze in her tracks one Sunday in front of a battered wooden carousel of poker chips. When I explained what it was, she gasped, "For my birthday, please get me poker chips." (I was tempted.)

Preschoolers also love guessing. Give them choices: Is that a bedwarmer or a long-handled frying pan? Because they also tire quickly, consider pulling a wagon.

Kindergarteners and up

Older kids like a mission, so once we had our son Niles find pirate stuff. He spotted ship models, treasure chests, and even a flask "for rum!" The flexible prices at a flea market intrigue older kids, so help them learn to bargain. They also appreciate why people become attached to things, so we encourage Niles, who can be shy, to ask the dealers about their goods. The response sometimes surprises: One dealer loved a giant old remote-control toy car. Or point out things you loved as a kid: an old Band-Aid tin, a glittery banana bicycle seat, a film projector. Then discuss with them how similar items look today.

Extra Credit

To find the best flea markets near you, go to fleamarketguide.com. After making a purchase, look up something similar on eBay to see if you paid a fair price, and check out how many people collect that very thing. Our older kids also enjoy Antiques Roadshow on PBS, partly for the variety of objects and the stories behind them, partly because the show's logo is a treasure chest.

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