The benefits of fantasy fiction and imaginative play

© 2019 GWEN DEWAR, PH.D., ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Fantasy image of young girl feeding a gigantic lizard-like dragon. Credit: Max Pixel

Fantasy has ancient roots, but it gets a bad rap. Some worry that fantasy fiction may confuse young children. Others dismiss fantasy as silly or frivolous.

Should children steer clear of fantasy play and fantasy entertainment? Is reading fantasy fiction a waste of time?

Studies suggest the answer is no.

Young children are quite savvy about fantasy elements in fiction. They are quick to identify them as impossible. And research indicates that fantasy fiction and fantasy play can benefit kids.

Engaging with fantasy can stimulate creativity and boost vocabulary. It may help children develop better self-regulation skills. It might even enhance their working memory performance.

So let's take a look at the evidence -- the way young children respond to fantastic stories and imaginative play.

Not so easily confused: Preschoolers understand that fantasy scenarios can't happen in real life.

We often hear that young children can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. But is it true? 

Not really. Not if what we mean is something like "preschoolers are liable to think that Spiderman exists because they've seen him in books or on television." 

In truth, preschoolers do make some errors of judgment, but not in this direction. 

Most young children are actually hyper-skeptical. 

For example, Andrew Shtluman and Susan Carey presented four-year-olds with a series of events in an illustrated storybook. Then they asked the children to judge whether the events depicted could happen in real life.

The kids correctly identified impossible events – like a character walking through walls. But they also incorrectly rejected many events that were merely improbable – like a character drinking onion juice, or owning a lion as a pet (Shtulman and Carey 2007).

Similarly, in experiments involving animated cartoons, Hui Li and her colleagues found evidence that children err on the side of skepticism.

“Even 4-year-olds have a fairly good understanding of fantastical events in animated cartoons,” say the researchers. When these kids make mistakes, it tends to be in the direction of dismissing realistic events as impossible (Li et al 2015).

The phenomenon can be observed with religious stories too. In studies of American children from Christian homes, researchers found that 4-year-olds were very skeptical of tales involving supernatural events and divine intervention (Wooley and Cox 2007; Vaden and Wooley 2011). Researchers didn't see kids take a more accepting stance until they were 5 or 6, perhaps because kids this age are more likely to receive explicit religious instruction (Wooley and Ghossainy 2013).

So it isn’t that young children get things wrong, or can’t be persuaded to believe in fantastic things. They can. But experiments suggest we have to actively sway them – provide them with evidence, or trade on our adult credibility to convince children that a fantastic proposition is true (Subbotsky 1993; Boerger et al 2009).

If the fantasy is presented as entertainment, it isn’t very likely to inspire confusion – not, at any rate, to the sort of confusion that would lead kids to think that humans can fly, or walk through walls, or turn themselves invisible.

One exception: Young children may struggle more with the fantasy vs. reality distinction if they are very fearful.

In studies of preschoolers, kids suffering from chronic, high levels of fearfulness perform more poorly on fantasy-reality tests.

So if you have a young child who experiences severe nighttime fears – or lots of daytime anxiety – your child is more prone to believe that, say, a supernatural monster actually exists (Zisenwine et al 2013; Petkova and Cain 2017).

But keep in mind: This doesn't mean these children should avoid all forms of fantasy. There are plenty of happy, non-threatening fantasy stories for kids to enjoy. Encountering such content -- and talking about it -- may help children improve their ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

In support of this idea, an experiment on older children found that both 6- and 9-year-olds developed better discrimination abilities after watching a film depicting magical events.

Compared to kids who watched a non-magical film, the fantasy-exposed children became better at spotting fantasy elements in a series of photographs and paintings (Subbotsky and Slater 2011).

What about the idea that fantasy is a mere distraction? Is fantasy play just mindless fun? Is reading fantasy fiction a waste of time?

On the contrary, studies indicate that fantasy can benefit children in several important ways.

Watching a movie with magical content can stimulate creativity.

The evidence comes from experiments involving the film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

Eugene Subbotsky and colleagues began by measuring children's creative tendencies. They asked 6- and 8-year-olds to draw pictures of "funny, crazy, impossible" objects that "could not exist in the real world." They also challenged kids to move across a room in as many different ways as possible.

Next, with these baseline measurements in hand, the researchers assigned each child to see one of two 15-minute film clips.

Both clips came from the movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. But one clip featured lots of magical content. The other -- while just as action-packed -- featured only naturalistic events.

Did the content have any impact?

To find out, Subbotsky’s team re-tested each child’s ability to "think outside the box," and the results favored the kids who had watched the magical content. Those children showed greater gains in their creative thinking performance (Subbotsky et al 2010). 

Fantasy fiction may also inspire preschoolers to learn new words.

How do we know? Deena Skolnick-Weisberg and her colleagues recruited more than 150 kids to participate in a preschool-based intervention.

They assigned all the children to participate in daily, 20-minute long sessions of storytelling and pretend play. But there were two different conditions.

Half the kids were assigned to the low-fantasy condition, which introduced new vocabulary words in the context of storybooks and pretend play that emphasized realistic events. These children encountered some fantasy elements (i.e., anthropomorphic animals that can talk). But the situations were relatively mundane (e.g., working on a farm, or making a pot of soup).

The other half were assigned to the high-fantasy condition, which introduced to new vocabulary words in the context of storybooks and pretend play that featured totally imaginary creatures and events – like dragons hatching from breakfast eggs.

Before the new sessions began, the researchers tested children's vocabulary knowledge. Then, after 8 days of the intervention, the kids were tested again. And there was a difference between groups: Kids in the high-fantasy condition used more new vocabulary in their spontaneous speech (Skolnick-Weisberg et al 2015).

Fantasy play might help preschoolers develop “executive functions” – the mental abilities that allow them to concentrate, make plans, keep their emotional impulses under control.

Executive functions are the mental processes that help us self-regulate. They include the abilities to override impulses, stay focused, and track information in working memory. They also include the capacity to switch flexibly in response to a change of rules.

Could fantasy play help children hone these abilities and skills? There’s reason to think so. For instance, consider the evidence from correlational studies.

  • When researchers tested more than 100 preschoolers, they found that kids with a rich fantasy life tended to perform better on tasks that required them to shift from one set of rules to another (Pierrucci et al 2013).
  • A follow-up study on another group of preschoolers found that fantasy-prone children exhibited better emotional regulation skills than their peers, even after accounting for other factors, like a child’s language ability (Gilpin et al 2015).
  • Other research has reported a link between fantasy play and emotional understanding among first and second graders: Kids who engaged in more cognitively sophisticated fantasy play tended to be more savvy about the emotions of others (Seja and Russ 1999). 

And there is experimental evidence too. A recent study suggests that we can improve executive function by encouraging children to engage in fantasy play.

There were 110 children in all – preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5.

Rachel Thibodeau and her colleagues randomly assigned one third of these kids to daily, adult-guided sessions of pretend, fantasy play (e.g., let’s be birds!).

Another group of children were randomly assigned to participate in guided sessions of non-fantasy games (like playing ball).

And a third group experienced “business as usual” at their preschools – no special play sessions.

After 5 weeks, children in the fantasy play group made significant gains in working memory performance. Kids in the other two groups did not (Thibodeau et al 2016).

And when the researchers drilled down – comparing individual children in the fantasy play group – they found a dosage effect. The more intensely a child engaged in fantasy play, the greater his or her improvement by the end of the study.

So it seems that fantasy can inspire creative thinking and motivate children to learn new vocabulary. It may also help kids develop skills crucial for concentration and impulse control. There’s nothing frivolous or impractical about that.

And yet practicality isn't everything. Fantasy would be important even without these practical benefits. It's a source of delight and inspiration. It allows us to see things from new perspectives. It can greatly expand our experience of life.

So we don't need specific educational justifications to indulge a child's sense of fantasy. They are simply icing on the cake. We owe children fantasy in the same way that we owe them music, humor, science, philosophy, and art. It's part of our inheritance as a large-brained, creative species. It's our children's birthright.

More reading

How else can we help children learn? Check out these Parenting Science articles.


References: The benefits of fantasy fiction and imaginative play

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

Li H, Boguszewski K, and Lillard AS. 2015. Can that really happen? Children's knowledge about the reality status of fantastical events in television.J Exp Child Psychol. 139:99-114.

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

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

Shtulman A and Carey S. 2007. Improbable or impossible? How children reason about the possibility of extraordinary events. Child Dev. 2007 May-Jun;78(3):1015-32.

Subbotsky E, Hysted C, Jones N. 2010. Watching films with magical content facilitates creativity in children. Percept Mot Skills 111(1):261-77.

Subbotsky E and Slater E. 2011. Children's discrimination of fantastic vs. realistic visual displays after watching a film with magical content. Percept Mot Skills. 112(2):603-9.

Thibodeau RB, Gilpin AT, Brown MM, Meyer BA. 2016. The effects of fantastical pretend-play on the development of executive functions: An intervention study. J Exp Child Psychol. 145:120-38.

Vaden VC and Woolley JD. 2011. Does God make it real? Children's belief in religious stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Child Dev. 82(4):1120-35.

Weisberg DS, Ilgaz H, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff RM, Nicolopoulou A and Dickinson DK. 2015. Shovels and swords: How realistic and fantastical themes affect children's word learning. Cognitive Development, 35, 1-14.

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

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

 Title image of girl feeding giant dragon lizard by Max Pixel