Part of being human is the ability to imagine other worlds, to fantasise. It’s a vital talent that underlies many others, including planning, lying and problem-solving. But we need to be able to keep fantasy distinct from reality – a lesson I learnt at a young(ish) age when I dived off the sofa head-first, attempting to imitate Superman.
To be fair to my younger self, you’d think the notion of fantasy worlds would be confusing for young children. Yet many studies have shown children are often precocious in this regard. For example, kids as young as four can tell the difference between fantasy characters and real characters, and they realise that pretending something exists doesn’t make it real. They even understand that fantasy worlds are separate from each other. One charming study showed how three- to six-year-olds believed Batman could touch Robin, but couldn’t touch SpongeBob.
Now Rebekah Richert and Erin Smith have expanded this literature by looking at pre-schoolers’ ability to transfer solutions learned from fantasy stories to real-world problems – a pertinent question given that fantasy stories are often used to teach young children. The researchers’ somewhat counter-intuitive finding is that the more immersed a child tends to be in fantasy and pretend play (a trait the researchers call “fantasy orientation”), the less likely they are to transfer solutions from fantasy to reality. It’s as if these children have built a mental barrier between the two worlds, thus preventing them from transferring lessons from one to the other.
The first study involved 33 children (aged three to five) being read a story by a researcher, one-on-one. Half the children heard a fantasy story involving a boy and astronaut rescuing other astronauts, while avoiding an enemy robot. The other children heard a real-world story involving boys playing hide-and-seek with their baby-sitter, and retrieving a small toy. Crucially, both stories conveyed solutions to the same two basic problems – hiding by locating oneself behind an object, and pulling an object closer by attaching a rope or string to it.
Afterwards, the children were tested on whether they could remember the solutions, and if they couldn’t, they were reminded of them. Next, they were presented with two new, real-world dilemmas that could be solved using the solutions conveyed in the earlier stories. The key question was whether the children would transfer the solutions from the stories they’d heard. Children were significantly more likely to transfer one or more of the two solutions successfully if they’d earlier been told a real-world story, as opposed to a fantasy story (1.36 average correct solution transfers vs. 0.64). This was the case even though children in both story groups had earlier displayed the same average memory for the solutions.
A second study with 51 pre-schoolers was similar to the first except that the two story types were told in a class setting – this was to encourage children in the fantasy story condition to believe they were being presented with useful information. Despite this, the results were the same: children who heard a real-world story were again far more likely to transfer the solutions to novel, real-world problems.
This time, among kids who heard the real-world story, being older and having a better memory for the solutions were both associated with more successful solution transfer. By contrast, among kids who heard the fantasy story, these factors didn’t matter. Instead, it was those who were typically less engaged in fantasy worlds (e.g. spent less time playing pretend games; didn’t have an imaginary friend) who were more likely to transfer the solutions to the real world. An important detail here is that “fantasy orientation” was not correlated with measures like cognitive ability or memory, so it’s not the case that the children typically more engaged in fantasy were less bright than the other kids.
“The children with the most experience in fantasy worlds were the least likely to use the fantasy story as a resource for real-world problem solving strategies,” the researchers said. “Until children have a firm grasp on what kinds of principles can overlap between real and fantasy worlds and what kinds of principles cannot, it may be beneficial for children to keep fantasy and real worlds separate from each other.”
Richert, R., and Smith, E. (2011). Preschoolers’ Quarantining of Fantasy Stories. Child Development, 82 (4), 1106-1119 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01603.x