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Posted on Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 6 a.m.

Why is my toddler so obsessed with garbage trucks?

By Kerry Novick

Dear Kerry,
The other day my 10-year-old asked me why his 20-month-old younger brother is obsessed with garbage trucks. I told him that he and my other two kids had been exactly the same. One of his first words was “Dump!” But I realized I had no idea - any suggestions?
-JC, Ann Arbor

Dear JC,
Your son had a very good question. And you’ve both observed accurately that toddlers all seem to adore garbage trucks and often the people who drive them!

Toddlers are so busy putting ideas together in their minds, seeing what goes with what, and figuring it all out. They are going through the fastest period of growth in their lives. But, just like the rest of us, they have their priorities.

For toddlers the really important things are what goes into their bodies and what comes out, where things belong, and where their important people are. So we’re thinking about food and poop, boxes and drawers and shelves and containers, and when people go away and come back.

Your little guy (and his big brothers and sisters before him) is trying to figure out what is permanent and what disappears. This is very important, since he depends on knowing that you and his daddy and the rest of his family will be there again. But what happens to the trash, and the broken broom handle, and the old newspapers? He likes to know that it all goes somewhere, even if it doesn’t come back. He keeps checking every week to get the difference clear in his mind - the trash goes in the truck and goes to the dump, and it doesn’t come back, but Mommy and Daddy go to work in the car and they come back every day. Whew - that’s a relief!

Then there’s the way the bites of food go into his mouth and disappear to the inside of his body. Do you know the toys where they bang a ball into a hole and then watch it go down a track and come out at the bottom? Toddlers’ fascination with those toys comes from their body sense that what goes in eventually comes out. They like to play it over and over again, and then all over again, so that they can master the process. It’s part of their wondering about their body products.

Toddlers are trying to understand how they can make something inside their bodies, push it out and get praised for it, but then their parents throw it away. They feel like it’s precious, so the rest of the trash seems pretty valuable too. It takes a long time to figure out how to tell the difference between what’s valuable to keep and what isn’t. Even your 10-year-old probably has “treasures” that a grownup wouldn’t value, but he cares a lot about his old plastic pinwheel from the county fair, or the rocks he picked up in the woods.

Just as toddlers are fascinated with how their bodies work, they often love machines. Many little ones know very well how to use the remote, dial their parents’ cell phones, and press the buttons on the car keys. The garbage truck is a great big, loud machine. It has moving parts that go up and down and it seems big and strong. The trash collectors are big and strong too, able to drive those trucks and make the grinders work. Kids want to be like the grownups and those guys control even machines even bigger than they are.

So your toddler has good reasons to be fascinated with the garbage trucks. My kids even learned the days of the week so they could anticipate when it was garbage day and be sure to be outside in time to see the truck come. Telling the story of the trash, how it goes in the bin, then gets picked up into the truck, then grind, grind, grind and zoom-zoom to the dump, where it all gets emptied out, so the truck can come back next week - what a nice way to learn about sequencing, what goes where, and how the world is organized!

Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns. The ideas and opinions in this column are Kerry Kelly Novick’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Allen Creek Preschool, MPI or MPC.



Thu, Sep 9, 2010 : 2:39 p.m.

I work for the garbage industry and would like to offer some resources to children and adults interested in learning more about the equipment and processes of managing trash. We have a website ( where the process is explained with pictures and words in both English and Spanish. There is a lot of other information on this site, including descriptions of how people can manage their waste better, descriptions of ways that solid waste professionals are implementing new techniques that conserve resources, produce energy and better protect our environment, and information about new technologies such as garbage trucks that use hybrid engines and/or alternative fuels.


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 9:10 p.m.

I'm 31 and I still watch the garbage & recycling trucks take my trash away. The only thing different is now it has a giant claw so it is much much cooler.


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 7:34 p.m.

You are all so right. When I was a toddler, I watched garbage trucks. Back in the day, there was a whole crew of men that would go door to door. You kept your garbage next to your house rather than at the curb. They had huge white barrels on wheels; they were like handtrucks. The crew would come to the side of all the houses with the barrels and fill them with refuse from garbage cans at the side of the house. Then they would wheel them to the garbage trucks and dump then in the rear of the truck. When the back was full enough, they would pull a lever and a huge blade would swing from the back of the truck and pull all the garbage taht had been deposited there into the truck. There weren't plastic trashbags back then. If I remember correctly, they cut costs first by us putting the cans at the curb and then later by using plastic bags. Cans returned because of animals started migrating into the city. This was in Ann Arbor. It was the early sixties as I was born in '61. I don't remember much before three years old, but a little. Any of my older friends could help with this. Oh! I just remembered something. There was an experimental way of picking up garbage back then. It was this sort of garbage train. I don't remember all the details, but I loved that thing. Don't even get me started on street sweepers.


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 3:02 p.m.

I think that it's big and mechanically interesting. Both boys and girls seem to be interested in it. No other trucks regularly go down most residential streets. I don't put much "truck" in the psychoanalytical explanation (about poop and so forth), though.

aubrey wheaton

Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 11:53 a.m.

actually the kid just likes trucks and likes the noise of them, and since the parent finds it perplexing the kid latches onto that and it becomes a spiral dynamic that ends when the kid gets older and learns he can't stand his parents nagging and explanations and he decides to leave the house.

Chris Ammel

Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 9:10 a.m.

Its the mysterious mechanical marvel of the machine, a massive container of steel and rubber that defies the social barrier. Announcing its arrival with a shrill cry from the brakes and a dust-stirring blast of pressurized air, it deliberately stops smack-dab in front of the house. The bottomless burble of the exhaust and the harmonious whirring of the hydraulic pump rise as the painted robotic arms and oil-stained cylinders spring into action. The machine effortlessly snatches our cart, lifting, rocking smashing, churning. Into the belly of the beast pours a cascade of boxes, bottles and bags, and even the stuffed hedgehog our dog had destroyed. With little regard for placement, it hastily plops the cart back to the curb, retracts its gangly arm, and with another blast of air, presses on like the passing storm. What a wonderful thing to see, what a brilliant show, especially for a little person only a few years old.

Ann English

Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 8:16 a.m.

KJMClark, It sounds like the mechanical arms that would pick up garbage cans, empty them (and rap the bottom to free any garbage sticking to it), putting it down and do the same for two more garbage cans next to it, SHOWN ON THE TENNESSEE TUXEDO SHOW IN THE SIXTIES, is ALMOST actually here in reality. In that Tennessee Tuxedo episode, his friend Chumley the walrus got picked up instead of the third and final garbage can, turned upside down and dropped when the machine rapped his feet instead of freeing the garbage stuck on the bottom of what it assumed was a garbage can. Chumley got amnesia from the experience, not recognizing Tennessee for who he was.


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 7:44 a.m.

Toddler boys love wheels and especially trucks. Garbage trucks are also noisy. Sheer delight for toddler boys...


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 7:27 a.m.

Great article...and comment...many astute points. Many elders continue watching the process, with keen interest, as well. Perhaps a tour of the transfer station is in order...


Sat, Sep 4, 2010 : 7:10 a.m.

I think it's that they are the biggest, most interesting machines most of see on a weekly basis. They're the size of a small house; they have an odd shape; they do really strange things; the new ones have arms that reach out and grab big garbage cans, dump them, and put them back down like they don't weigh a thing; other trucks pick up whole dumpsters - the size of a small car - and do the same thing; they're loud but not too scary; and they drive around like cars. It probably has to do with the weekly timing too; cars are more mundane - they're everywhere - but the garbage trucks only come once a week. My kids had a weekly ritual. When the garbage trucks came they'd jump to the window and watch.