It rewards patience and persistence, teaching those who embrace it about everything from ancient history to modern graphic design.
And that's exactly why a growing community of parents and teachers believe it's a hobby worth encouraging kids to pursue.
At the Postal History Foundation in Tucson, Arizona, Lisa Dembowski and her colleagues work with more than 14,000 kids each year in person and online, sharing lesson plans with teachers and sending packets of stamps to kids. Dembowski doesn't have precise figures, but she has seen an increase in the last couple of years in the number of parents and school groups ordering stamp packets.
Richard Rizzo, director of the stamp outreach program at the International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors, fields requests from thousands of young collectors, schoolteachers, scout troops and youth stamp clubs. He also receives grateful emails from teachers who say their students are surprised at just how much fun this retro hobby can be.
"I had a group of high school students in my French class roll their eyes at me when I asked if they had any interest in stamps," South Carolina high school teacher Donna Boggs wrote to Rizzo recently. "But then once I brought out the stamps, well, their attitudes changed fast! They were fascinated, and could not stop looking through them."
Child development experts say the benefits are many; the challenge is to get kids started. Cool stamps aren't arriving in the mailbox much now that ground mail is less common. And few kids know others who are already collecting stamps. So parents and teachers have to start the ball rolling.
Five reasons why they should:
1. Kids can develop patience and focus.
Sorting through stamps and building a collection requires "a very different kind of attention" than video games or television do, says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. Quick-cut TV shows "make very rapid demands on children's attention," she says, while "stamp collecting requires more sustained focus."
The intricacies of a tiny image printed on a piece of paper, and the story of why that particular image was printed on a stamp, draws kids in, slowing down their racing minds.
"When you're looking at stamps, you spend a little more time than in our instant-gratification activities," says Gretchen Moody, director of education at the American Philatelic Society.
2. Kids develop expertise.
Child development research has shown that children have an impressive capacity for classifying objects and remembering details if given the opportunity, says Julia Heberle, associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. "Children, even young children," she says, "can accumulate a lot of organized, detailed expert knowledge."
Goodman-Wilson agrees: Stamp collecting helps even very young kids build categorizing and counting skills, and geographic awareness. It can serve as "a natural learning opportunity," she says.
"As a teaching tool, every stamp has a story to tell," Rizzo says. "What country issued the stamp? Does the country still exist? Where in the world is the country located?"
Some kids focus on U.S. stamps, learning about U.S. history and famous Americans. Others might collect stamps from their countries of ancestry. They learn about languages, currencies and historical figures, Moody says, leading to "a better awareness of who you are in this global society."
3. Kids discover stunning artwork and intricate graphic design.
Stamps were once both useful and beautiful. Today, some of their usefulness has been replaced by email and the Internet. But many remain beautiful, and offer a lesson in expressing what's important and celebrated in a given culture on the tiniest of canvases.
Kids can try sketching some of the stamps they've collected or seen in photos. And Dembowski suggests decorating an envelope related to a given stamp, and then mailing the creation to friends or relatives.
4. Screen time is minimal, and optional.
Some kids do hunt for stamps online, and there are collecting apps for Android and Apple devices. But hours spent sifting through a collection of paper stamps connects kids to the physical world. International collecting is exciting, says Moody, because "they're holding something from another part of the world in their hands."
Children also can attend stamp shows with their families (the American Philatelic Society website lists dozens around the country each month), and ask neighbours and local businesses for any stamped envelopes they receive and don't need.
5. A stamp collection can be personalized.
"This hobby has no rules," Dembowski says. "You can collect whatever you want. So you can focus in on one specific topic, like horses" or another subject that a child loves.
"Even though ground mail has decreased, the number of stamp options has not," Moody says. The U.S. Postal Service regularly issues new stamps depicting everything from flowers and snowflakes to pop singers, athletes and actors.
Kids also might visit the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., where vintage postal-delivery planes hang from the ceiling, or become members in the American Philatelic Society, which holds meetings twice each year.
For parents seeking to get kids involved, the answer might be as simple as gathering that first batch of stamps and spreading them out on the kitchen table.
"In our electronic age, stamp collecting has much more competition for a child's interest than, say, 50 years ago. But every child has an interest in something," says Rizzo. "When you put a pile of stamps in front of a child and they start thumbing through them, they will almost always find something that piques their interest."
The American Philatelic Society: http://stamps.org/
International Society of Worldwide Stamp Collectors: http://www.iswsc.org/
Postal History Foundation: http://www.postalhistoryfoundation.org/
The Smithsonian's National Postal Museum: http://postalmuseum.si.edu/Suggest a correction