The benefits of fantasy fiction and imaginative play

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 kids steer clear of fantasy play and fantasy entertainment? Is reading fantasy fiction a waste of time? Studies suggest we should take a nuanced approach to these questions.

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

Some types of fantasy may be too frightening — or too cognitively taxing — for preschoolers to follow. Yet young children are quite savvy about the 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 some children develop better self-regulation skills. It might even enhance their working memory performance, and — under some conditions — help them discover creative solutions to problems.

So let’s take a look at the evidence — the way 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.

But young children may struggle with the fantasy versus 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).

And preschoolers often prefer realistic, down-to-earth scenarios.

Young children love to pretend, but their playful adventures are often pretty down-to-earth: They often act out everyday scenarios, or imitate mundane adult behaviors — such as cooking a meal, or driving car. Similarly — when it comes to consuming works of fiction — preschoolers favor naturalistic stories. Given the choice, they tend to prefer tales set in the real world (Nyout and Lee 2022; Weisberg and Lee 2022).

Moreover, it appears that fantasy television (as opposed to fantasy books, or fantasy, pretend play) may have a temporary, disruptive effect on the executive function performance of kids under the age of 6.

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.

What happens to a child’s executive functions when he or she is watching an animated TV show that depicts fantastic — often impossible — events? When researchers have shown preschoolers (aged 4-6 years) such TV programs, these kids performed worse on executive function tasks immediately afterwards (Lillard et al 2015; Li et al 2020; Rhodes et al 2020; Fan et al 2021).

But the same wasn’t true when adults read the children a fantasy story (Lilliard et al 2015). Nor does it appear that fantasy pretend play is disruptive (on the contrary, as you will see below). And 7-year-olds? These older kids didn’t experience any reductions in executive function performance after watching animated fantasy programs (Fan et al 2021).

So what’s going on with fantasy television and young children? It isn’t entirely clear. But one theory is that children under the age of 6 have limited cognitive resources for keeping track of all the surprising, counter-factual things that happen in fantastic cartoon programs. The effort is overtaxing, leaving them with fewer resources to perform other executive function tasks immediately afterwards (Fan et al 2021).

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

We’ve seen that certain types of fantasy — fantasy that is frightening, and fantasy that is depicted in animated cartoons — may be problematic for some preschoolers. Does this mean that the rest of it is okay? Some people might argue that fantasy is frivolous. That kids — regardless of their age — are better off if they focus all their attention on the practical, everyday world. But studies indicate that fantasy can benefit children in several important ways.

Watching a movie with magical content may stimulate creativity in school-aged children.

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 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, pretend play might help preschoolers develop executive function skills and the ability to read emotions

It makes sense that pretend, fantasy play could help kids hone their executive function skills. To play successfully with others, you have to keep a new set of rules in your head. You must stay focused, and avoid saying or doing things that would spoil the shared fantasy. You need to be good at task-switching, juggling information in working memory, and self-regulation.

It’s also plausible that certain kinds of fantasy play could enhance a child’s understanding of other people’s emotions. Imagining alternate realities may be good practice for imagining what goes on in another individual’s head (Dore and Lillard 2015).

What does the research tell us? Correlational studies confirm links between fantasy, executive function, and emotional savvy. For example:

  • 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 associations between fantasy and emotional understanding. In a study of 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 a study of preschoolers found that kids were more likey to develop advanced “mind-reading” skills if they had a strong orientation towards fantasy (Dore and Lillard 2015).

There is experimental evidence, too. Recent studies suggest that we can improve an aspect of executive function — working memory performance — by encouraging children to engage in pretend play.

For example, Rachel Thibodeau and her colleagues randomly assigned 110 preschoolers (between the ages of 3 and 5) to one of three groups:

  • one third of the kids were assigned to daily, adult-guided sessions of pretend, fantasy play (e.g., let’s be birds!)
  • another group participated in guided sessions of non-fantasy games (like playing ball), and
  • the remaining children experienced “business as usual” at their preschools – no special play sessions.

After 5 weeks, children in the pretend 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 pretend play group – they found a dosage effect. The more intensely a child engaged in pretend, fantasy play, the greater his or her improvement by the end of the study.

It isn’t clear that the fantastic elements of pretend play were crucial for improving working memory performance. In a more recent study of 3-year-olds, researchers found that it was the act of pretending together that mattered most — not how imaginative or fantastic the storyline was (White and Carlson 2021). But fantasy stories might be helpful if they provide kids with the motivation to engage in pretend play.

There are limits, though, yes? Surely it’s not helpful to try to use fantasy to teach kids about science or problem-solving in the real world…

Researchers Emily Hopkins and Angeline Lillard call this the “Magic Schoolbus Dilemma”, a reference to a popular animated cartoon that attempts to teach science lessons through stories that include fantasy elements — like a school bus capable of changing it’s shape and size.

As we’ve noted above, young children can be hyperskeptical about fantasy stories — dismissing even those parts of a story that are merely improbable — not impossible. So we might expect that kids would be less likely to learn new facts presented in fantasy stories. And several experimental studies have confirmed this (see summaries in Strouse et al 2018; Hopkins and Lillard 2021).

Yet even here, there is reason to think that fantasy might sometimes be helpful. In an experiment conducted on 5-year-olds, Hopkins and Lillard presented kids with the solution to a practical problem by embedding it in a story. Some children heard a version of the story that was minimally fantastic (set on a planet that was depicted as being virtually identical to earth). Other kids heard a version that incorporated “deeper” fantasy elements (like orange grass and a green sky).

Kids in both groups were exposed to the same covert lesson about problem-solving. But the children who had encountered this information in the more fantastic story were more likely to apply the lesson in a subsequent, real-life test. Interestingly, this difference emerged only if the more fantastic story also depicted some truly impossible events (like a character walking through walls), and only if those impossible events were presented before the educational content in the story (Hopkins and Lillard 2021).

What was going on here? Maybe those impossible events attracted children’s interest — making kids pay closer attention. And perhaps these 5-year olds were mature enough to really enjoy fantasy, and to realize that the subsequent, practical, problem-solving content could be applied to everyday life. We’ll need more research to sort this out. Meanwhile, it seems premature to assume that kids can’t learn facts presented in stories with fantastic content. It might depend on a child’s age, interests, and reasoning skills.

The takeaway?

Fantasy isn’t always appealing — or appropriate — for young children. They might find certain fantasy elements frightening, or hard to track. But this doesn’t mean that young children should avoid all forms of fantasy.

On the contrary, preschoolers who engage in pretend, fantasy play tend to show stronger executive function skills. Fantasy stories may motivate kids to learn new vocabulary and new facts. And — among older children, at least — we have evidence that fantasy movies can inspire creative thinking.

There’s nothing frivolous or impractical about these benefits. Yet practicality isn’t everything. Fantasy would be important even without these effects. 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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image of girl in cape by Choreograph / istock

Content last modified 1/2023. Portions of the text derive from an earlier version of this article, written by the same author.

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