The advantages of fantasy fiction and imaginative play

Fantasy has historical roots, nevertheless it will get a foul rap. Some fear that fantasy fiction might confuse younger youngsters. Others dismiss fantasy as foolish or frivolous. Ought to children keep away from fantasy play and fantasy leisure? Is studying fantasy fiction a waste of time? Quite the opposite! However research counsel we must always take a nuanced strategy to fantasy — one which considers a toddler’s private and developmental traits.

little girl, wearing a superhero cape, is standing on a hill, looking down at a city.

Some kinds of fantasy could also be too horrifying — or too cognitively taxing — for preschoolers to observe. But younger youngsters are fairly savvy concerning the fantasy parts in fiction. They’re fast to determine them as inconceivable. And analysis signifies that fantasy fiction and fantasy play can profit children. Participating with fantasy can stimulate creativity and increase vocabulary. It could assist some youngsters develop higher self-regulation expertise. It’d even improve their working reminiscence efficiency, and — underneath some circumstances — assist them uncover inventive options to issues.

So let’s check out the proof — the best way youngsters reply to implausible tales and imaginative play.

Not so simply confused: Preschoolers perceive that fantasy situations can’t occur in actual life.

We regularly hear that younger youngsters can’t inform the distinction between fantasy and actuality. However is it true? Not likely. Not if what we imply is one thing like “preschoolers are liable to assume that Spiderman exists as a result of they’ve seen him in books or on tv.” In fact, preschoolers do make some errors of judgment, however not on this path. 

Most younger youngsters are literally hyper-skeptical. 

For instance, Andrew Shtluman and Susan Carey introduced four-year-olds with a collection of occasions in an illustrated storybook. Then they requested the kids to evaluate whether or not the occasions depicted may occur in actual life.

The youngsters accurately recognized inconceivable occasions – like a personality strolling via partitions. However additionally they incorrectly rejected many occasions that had been merely inconceivable – like a personality consuming onion juice, or proudly owning a lion as a pet (Shtulman and Carey 2007).

Equally, in experiments involving animated cartoons, Hui Li and her colleagues discovered proof that youngsters err on the aspect of skepticism. “Even 4-year-olds have a reasonably good understanding of fantastical occasions in animated cartoons,” say the researchers. When these children make errors, it tends to be within the path of dismissing lifelike occasions as inconceivable (Li et al 2015).

The phenomenon may be noticed with spiritual tales too.

In research of American youngsters from Christian houses, researchers discovered that 4-year-olds had been very skeptical of tales involving supernatural occasions and divine intervention (Wooley and Cox 2007; Vaden and Wooley 2011). Researchers didn’t see children take a extra accepting stance till they had been 5 or 6, maybe as a result of children this age usually tend to obtain specific spiritual instruction (Wooley and Ghossainy 2013).

So it isn’t that younger youngsters get issues incorrect, or can’t be persuaded to imagine in implausible issues. They’ll. However experiments counsel we have now to actively sway them – present them with proof, or commerce on our grownup credibility to persuade youngsters {that a} implausible proposition is true (Subbotsky 1993; Boerger et al 2009).

If the fantasy is introduced as leisure, it isn’t very more likely to encourage confusion – not, at any price, to the kind of confusion that may lead children to assume that people can fly, or stroll via partitions, or flip themselves invisible.

However younger youngsters might wrestle with the fantasy versus actuality distinction if they’re very fearful

In research of preschoolers, children affected by persistent, excessive ranges of fearfulness carry out extra poorly on fantasy-reality exams. So you probably have a younger baby who experiences extreme nighttime fears – or a number of daytime nervousness – your baby is extra liable to imagine that, say, a supernatural monster really exists (Zisenwine et al 2013; Petkova and Cain 2017).

And preschoolers typically favor lifelike, down-to-earth situations.

Younger youngsters like to fake, however their playful adventures are sometimes fairly down-to-earth: They typically act out on a regular basis situations, or imitate mundane grownup behaviors — corresponding to cooking a meal, or driving automotive. Equally — with regards to consuming works of fiction — preschoolers favor naturalistic tales. Given the selection, they have a tendency to favor tales set in the true world (Nyout and Lee 2022; Weisberg and Lee 2022).

Furthermore, it seems that fantasy tv (versus fantasy books, or fantasy, fake play) might have a short lived, disruptive impact on the chief perform efficiency of youngsters underneath the age of 6.

Govt capabilities are the psychological processes that assist us self-regulate. They embody the skills to override impulses, keep centered, and observe info in working reminiscence. Additionally they embody the capability to modify flexibly in response to a change of guidelines.

What occurs to a toddler’s govt capabilities when she or he is watching an animated TV present that depicts implausible — typically inconceivable — occasions? When researchers have proven preschoolers (aged 4-6 years) such TV packages, these children carried out worse on govt perform duties instantly afterwards (Lillard et al 2015; Li et al 2020; Rhodes et al 2020; Fan et al 2021).

However the identical wasn’t true when adults learn the kids a fantasy story (Lilliard et al 2015). Nor does it seem that fantasy fake play is disruptive (quite the opposite, as you will note beneath). And seven-year-olds? These older children didn’t expertise any reductions in govt perform efficiency after watching animated fantasy packages (Fan et al 2021).

So what’s happening with fantasy tv and younger youngsters? It isn’t solely clear. However one idea is that youngsters underneath the age of 6 have restricted cognitive sources for retaining observe of all of the shocking, counter-factual issues that occur in implausible cartoon packages. The trouble is overtaxing, leaving them with fewer sources to carry out different govt perform duties instantly afterwards (Fan et al 2021).

What about the concept that fantasy is a mere distraction? Is fantasy play simply senseless enjoyable? Is studying fantasy fiction a waste of time?

We’ve seen that sure varieties of fantasy — fantasy that’s horrifying, and fantasy that’s depicted in animated cartoons — could also be problematic for some preschoolers. Does this imply that the remainder of it’s okay? Some individuals may argue that fantasy is frivolous. That youngsters — no matter their age — are higher off in the event that they focus all their consideration on the sensible, on a regular basis world. However research point out that fantasy can profit youngsters in a number of vital methods.

Watching a film with magical content material might stimulate creativity in school-aged youngsters.

The proof comes from experiments involving the movie, Harry Potter and the Thinker’s Stone. Eugene Subbotsky and colleagues started by measuring youngsters’s inventive tendencies. They requested 6- and 8-year-olds to attract footage of “humorous, loopy, inconceivable” objects that “couldn’t exist in the true world.” Additionally they challenged children to maneuver throughout a room in as many various methods as attainable.

Subsequent, with these baseline measurements in hand, the researchers assigned every baby to see one in every of two 15-minute movie clips. Each clips got here from the film, Harry Potter and the Thinker’s Stone. However one clip featured a number of magical content material. The opposite — whereas simply as action-packed — featured solely naturalistic occasions.

Did the content material have any impression? To search out out, Subbotsky’s group re-tested every baby’s means to “assume outdoors the field,” and the outcomes favored the children who had watched the magical content material. These youngsters confirmed better beneficial properties of their inventive pondering efficiency (Subbotsky et al 2010). 

Fantasy fiction might encourage preschoolers to be taught new phrases.

How do we all know? Deena Skolnick-Weisberg and her colleagues recruited greater than 150 children to take part in a preschool-based intervention. They assigned all the kids to take part in every day, 20-minute lengthy periods of storytelling and fake play. However there have been two completely different circumstances.

Half the children had been assigned to the low-fantasy situation, which launched new vocabulary phrases within the context of storybooks and fake play that emphasised lifelike occasions. These youngsters encountered some fantasy parts (i.e., anthropomorphic animals that may discuss). However the conditions had been comparatively mundane (e.g., engaged on a farm, or making a pot of soup).

The opposite half had been assigned to the high-fantasy situation, which launched to new vocabulary phrases within the context of storybooks and fake play that featured completely imaginary creatures and occasions – like dragons hatching from breakfast eggs.

Earlier than the brand new periods started, the researchers examined youngsters’s vocabulary data. Then, after 8 days of the intervention, the children had been examined once more. And there was a distinction between teams: Children within the high-fantasy situation used extra new vocabulary of their spontaneous speech (Skolnick-Weisberg et al 2015).

Fantasy, fake play may assist preschoolers develop govt perform expertise and the power to learn feelings

It is smart that faux, fantasy play may assist children hone their govt perform expertise. To play efficiently with others, it’s a must to preserve a brand new algorithm in your head. You should keep centered, and keep away from saying or doing issues that may spoil the shared fantasy. You must be good at task-switching, juggling info in working reminiscence, and self-regulation.

It’s additionally believable that sure sorts of fantasy play may improve a toddler’s understanding of different individuals’s feelings. Imagining alternate realities could also be good follow for imagining what goes on in one other particular person’s head (Dore and Lillard 2015).

What does the analysis inform us? Correlational research affirm hyperlinks between fantasy, govt perform, and emotional savvy. For instance:

  • When researchers examined greater than 100 preschoolers, they discovered that children with a wealthy fantasy life tended to carry out higher on duties that required them to shift from one algorithm to a different (Pierrucci et al 2013).
  • A follow-up research on one other group of preschoolers discovered that fantasy-prone youngsters exhibited higher emotional regulation expertise than their friends, even after accounting for different components, like a toddler’s language means (Gilpin et al 2015).
  • Different analysis has reported associations between fantasy and emotional understanding. In a research of first and second graders, children who engaged in additional cognitively refined fantasy play tended to be extra savvy concerning the feelings of others (Seja and Russ 1999). And a research of preschoolers discovered that children had been extra likey to develop superior “mind-reading” expertise if they’d a powerful orientation in the direction of fantasy (Dore and Lillard 2015).

There’s experimental proof, too. Latest research counsel that we will enhance a facet of govt perform — working reminiscence efficiency — by encouraging youngsters to have interaction in fake play.

For instance, Rachel Thibodeau and her colleagues randomly assigned 110 preschoolers (between the ages of three and 5) to one in every of three teams:

  • one third of the children had been assigned to every day, adult-guided periods of fake, fantasy play (e.g., let’s be birds!)
  • one other group participated in guided periods of non-fantasy video games (like taking part in ball), and
  • the remaining youngsters skilled “enterprise as normal” at their preschools – no particular play periods.

After 5 weeks, youngsters within the fake play group made important beneficial properties in working reminiscence efficiency. Children within the different two teams didn’t (Thibodeau et al 2016). And when the researchers drilled down – evaluating particular person youngsters within the fake play group – they discovered a dosage impact. The extra intensely a toddler engaged in fake, fantasy play, the better his or her enchancment by the top of the research.

It isn’t clear that the implausible parts of fake play had been essential for enhancing working reminiscence efficiency. In a more moderen research of 3-year-olds, researchers discovered that it was the act of pretending collectively that mattered most — not how imaginative or implausible the storyline was (White and Carlson 2021). However fantasy tales may be useful if they supply children with the motivation to have interaction in fake play.

There are limits, although, sure? Certainly it’s not useful to attempt to use fantasy to show children about science or problem-solving in the true world…

Researchers Emily Hopkins and Angeline Lillard name this the “Magic Schoolbus Dilemma”, a reference to a well-liked animated cartoon that makes an attempt to show science classes via tales that embody fantasy parts — like a faculty bus able to altering it’s form and measurement.

As we’ve famous above, younger youngsters may be hyperskeptical about fantasy tales — dismissing even these components of a narrative which can be merely inconceivable — not inconceivable. So we would anticipate that children can be much less more likely to be taught new info introduced in fantasy tales. And several other experimental research have confirmed this (see summaries in Strouse et al 2018; Hopkins and Lillard 2021).

But even right here, there may be cause to assume that fantasy may typically be useful. In an experiment performed on 5-year-olds, Hopkins and Lillard introduced children with the answer to a sensible downside by embedding it in a narrative. Some youngsters heard a model of the story that was minimally implausible (set on a planet that was depicted as being just about equivalent to earth). Different children heard a model that included “deeper” fantasy parts (like orange grass and a inexperienced sky).

Children in each teams had been uncovered to the identical covert lesson about problem-solving. However the youngsters who had encountered this info within the extra implausible story had been extra more likely to apply the lesson in a subsequent, real-life check. Apparently, this distinction emerged solely if the extra implausible story additionally depicted some actually inconceivable occasions (like a personality strolling via partitions), and solely if these inconceivable occasions had been introduced earlier than the tutorial content material within the story (Hopkins and Lillard 2021).

What was happening right here? Perhaps these inconceivable occasions attracted youngsters’s curiosity — making children pay nearer consideration. And maybe these 5-year olds had been mature sufficient to actually get pleasure from fantasy, and to understand that the following, sensible, problem-solving content material may very well be utilized to on a regular basis life. We’ll want extra analysis to type this out. In the meantime, it appears untimely to imagine that children can’t be taught info introduced in tales with implausible content material. It’d rely upon a toddler’s age, pursuits, and reasoning expertise.

The takeaway?

Fantasy isn’t all the time interesting — or acceptable — for younger youngsters. They may discover sure fantasy parts horrifying, or arduous to trace. However this doesn’t imply that younger youngsters ought to keep away from all types of fantasy.

Quite the opposite, preschoolers who interact in fake, fantasy play have a tendency to point out stronger govt perform expertise. Fantasy tales might inspire children to be taught new vocabulary and new info. And — amongst older youngsters, no less than — we have now proof that fantasy motion pictures can encourage inventive pondering.

There’s nothing frivolous or impractical about these advantages. But practicality isn’t the whole lot. Fantasy can be vital even with out these results. It’s a supply of pleasure and inspiration. It permits us to see issues from new views. It will possibly significantly develop our expertise of life.

So we don’t want particular instructional justifications to indulge a toddler’s sense of fantasy. They’re merely icing on the cake. We owe youngsters fantasy in the identical method that we owe them music, humor, science, philosophy, and artwork. It’s a part of our inheritance as a large-brained, inventive species. It’s our youngsters’s birthright.

Extra studying

How else can we assist youngsters be taught? Try these Parenting Science articles.


References: The advantages of fantasy fiction and imaginative play

Boerger EA. 2011. ‘In fairy tales fairies can disappear’: youngsters’s reasoning concerning the traits of people and fantasy figures. Br J Dev Psychol. 29(Pt 3):635-55.

Dore RA and Lillard AS. 2015. Idea of thoughts and kids’s engagement in fantasy worlds. Creativeness, Cognition and Persona. 34(3): 230–242.

Gilpin AT, Brown MM, and Pierucci JM. 2015. Relations between fantasy orientation and emotion regulation in preschool. Early Training and Growth 26(7): 920-932.

Hopkins EJ and Lillard AS. 2021. The Magic Faculty Bus dilemma: How fantasy impacts youngsters’s studying from tales. J Exp Baby Psychol. 210:105212.

Li H, Boguszewski Okay, and Lillard AS. 2015. Can that actually occur? Youngsters’s data concerning the actuality standing of fantastical occasions in tv.J Exp Baby Psychol. 139:99-114.

Li H, Hsueh Y, Yu H, Kitzmann KM. 2020. Viewing Fantastical Occasions in Animated Tv Reveals: Fast Results on Chinese language Preschoolers’ Govt Perform. Entrance Psychol. 11:583174.

Nyhout A and Lee R. 2022. Younger youngsters should not pushed to discover imaginary worlds. Behav Mind Sci. 45:e291.

Petkova AV, Cain KM. 2017. Preschool Fantasy-Actuality Discrimination: Influences of Trait and Primed Fearfulness. J Genet Psychol. 178(2):133-138.

Pierucci JM, O’Brien CT, McInnis MA, Gilpin AT and Barber, AB. 2014. Fantasy orientation constructs and associated govt perform growth in preschool: Developmental advantages to govt capabilities by being a fantasy-oriented baby. Worldwide Journal of Behavioral Growth 38(1): 62–69.

Seja AL, Russ SW. Youngsters’s fantasy play and emotional understanding. J Clin Baby Psychol. 1999 Jun;28(2):269-77.

Shtulman A and Carey S. 2007. Unbelievable or inconceivable? How youngsters cause about the opportunity of extraordinary occasions. Baby Dev. 2007 Could-Jun;78(3):1015-32.

Strouse GA, Nyhout A, Ganea PA. 2018. The Function of Guide Options in Younger Youngsters’s Switch of Info from Image Books to Actual-World Contexts. Entrance Psychol. 9:50.

Subbotsky E, Hysted C, Jones N. 2010. Watching movies with magical content material facilitates creativity in youngsters. Percept Mot Expertise 111(1):261-77.

Subbotsky E and Slater E. 2011. Youngsters’s discrimination of implausible vs. lifelike visible shows after watching a movie with magical content material. Percept Mot Expertise. 112(2):603-9.

Thibodeau RB, Gilpin AT, Brown MM, Meyer BA. 2016. The results of fantastical pretend-play on the event of govt capabilities: An intervention research. J Exp Baby Psychol. 145:120-38.

Vaden VC and Woolley JD. 2011. Does God make it actual? Youngsters’s perception in spiritual tales from the Judeo-Christian custom. Baby Dev. 82(4):1120-35.

Weisberg DS, Ilgaz H, Hirsh-Pasek Okay, Golinkoff RM, Nicolopoulou A and Dickinson DK. 2015. Shovels and swords: How lifelike and fantastical themes have an effect on youngsters’s phrase studying. Cognitive Growth, 35, 1-14.

Weisberg DS and Sobel DM. 2022. Imaginative processes in youngsters should not significantly imaginative. Behav Mind Sci. 45:e303.

Woolley JD and Cox V. 2007. Growth of beliefs about storybook actuality. Developmental Science. 10:681–693.

Woolley JD and E Ghossainy M. 2013. Revisiting the fantasy-reality distinction: youngsters as naïve skeptics. Baby Dev. 84(5):1496-510.

Zisenwine T, Kaplan M, Kushnir J, Sadeh A. 2013. Nighttime fears and fantasy-reality differentiation in preschool youngsters. Baby Psychiatry Hum Dev. 44(1):186-99.

picture of woman in cape by Choreograph / istock

Content material final modified 1/2023. Parts of the textual content derive from an earlier model of this text, written by the identical writer.