Children s understanding of reality and fantasy



Attending a theatrical performance is almost always a fun and even
exhilarating experience for children; but, as every parent knows, fear and
confusion regarding the action on stage can occasionally limit a child's
enjoyment. Imagine a young child watching a play in which a mother dies
or a scary monster terrifies some townspeople. The child may not realize
that the woman in the play is only pretending to die, and may become
quite concerned and even worried that his or her own mother might die.
Or the child might not understand that monsters are not real and become
afraid that the monster will leap off the stage and attack the audience. At
what age can a child understand that what happens on stage is not real,
but is merely actors pretending? At what age do children understand that
monsters and other fantastic creatures are not real? These questions are
related to an issue that has been investigated by developmental
psychologists for many years: When and how do children come to
distinguish reality from fantasy?

Children's Beliefs about Fantasy and Magic

Jean Piaget, one of the most renowned developmental psychologists,
believed that children could not understand the difference between reality
and fantasy until they were at least seven or eight years old. The current
view, however, based on recent research from around the world, is that
young children have a much better understanding of what is real and what
is not than Piaget thought, but that they acquire different aspects of this
knowledge at different ages. At the University of Illinois we have been
investigating children's beliefs about fantasy and magic for some time. We
have found that parents often report that their children believe in the reality
of certain fantasy figures, such as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, until quite
late, sometimes even as old as eight or nine years of age. In contrast, many
parents report that their children understand that monsters, ghosts, and
witches are not real at an earlier age, even prior to the age of five. We
have also found that between the ages of three and six, children often have
rich magical beliefs; for example, they typically think that magic is a real
possibility. Only a few years later, by age six or seven, children come to
realize that magic involves deception, and that an ordinary person can
learn to perform magic. Paul Harris at Oxford University and Jacqueline
Woolley at the University of Texas have shown that children as young as
three can understand the difference between pretend actions and entities
and real ones. Taken together, the recent research indicates that young
children have a better understanding of what is real and what is not than
Piaget suggested.

But children are not always very good at determining what is real. They
seem to be taken in by fantastic events in a number of different types of
situations. These include situations that would usually be unfamiliar to a
child; or where contextual cues suggest that a "special  event" is occurring
in which different causal rules apply; or situations that trigger a strong
emotional response, such as fear. For example, in one study we conducted
at the University of Illinois, we told children that we had a machine which
could shrink objects in another room to about one-tenth of their former
size. When we then flipped the switch and "shrunk"  the room, children
participating in the study seemed quite willing to believe that this
unfamiliar machine really had shrunk the roomful of objects. At the
University of Lancaster, Eugene Subbotsky tells children a story about an
allegedly magical item, such as a box, that can turn pictures into real
objects. He then leaves children with the box and watches to see if they
attempt to perform the magical event. Even though a majority of the
children initially say that pictures cannot be turned into real objects,
children as old as nine will attempt to produce the magical response in
this situation.

Emotions also lead to a blurring of the fantasy-reality barrier. In one study,
Paul Harris and his colleagues from the University of Oxford had children
imagine that a witch, ghost, or monster was chasing them. Even children
who said that such creatures were not real often reported feeling afraid
when they imagined being chased by one.

What might account for the age differences in children's understanding of
the reality-fantasy distinction? Anne Hickling at the University of North
Carolina at Greensboro and I have proposed that a number of different
factors contribute to children learning what can really happen in the world,
and what cannot. The first is increased knowledge. The more knowledge
children acquire about objects in the world and their causal mechanisms,
the better able they are to distinguish real from unreal events. A second
factor is parental input and encouragement. In a number of surveys we
have found that many parents actively encourage beliefs in positive fantasy
figures, such as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, and actively discourage
beliefs in fantasy figures that might be scary to their children. When we
asked parents how and when they think children should come to learn the
distinction between reality and fantasy, they often respond that they want
their children to gain this knowledge partly on their own and partly with
their help. Most parents want their children to acquire this knowledge by
the age of six or seven.

Nurturing Children's Understanding of Theater

Although there has been very little, if any, research explicitly investigating
children's understanding of plays and the theater, the research cited above
investigating children's understanding of reality and fantasy can provide
some important insights for parents. It seems safe to say, for instance, that
the more children learn about the theater, the more they will understand
and enjoy the plays they attend. Since young children have limited
attention spans, parents should look for relatively short plays based on
stories that are familiar to their children, and for plays that are specifically
designed for young audiences. For example, my own daughters have
enjoyed theater productions of Harold and the Purple Crayon, Charlotte's
Web, and The Jungle Book, all based on stories they know. Many
theaters, such as the Arden Theater in Philadelphia, encourage children to
interact with the performers after the play and to ask questions. Meeting
the real people behind the characters, and learning about costumes and
how special effects are produced, can be a wonderful experience for young
children that increases their understanding of the theater context. Finally,
and perhaps most important, parents should provide many opportunities
for children to create their own plays and make-believe. My wife and I
have provided our children with a dress-up box filled with old clothes and
props. Parents will find that children can engage in this activity for hours
and that it enables them to try out different pretend and real roles.

Research suggests that active role-playing may lead children to acquire an
earlier and more sophisticated understanding of fantasy and reality. It may
also help children achieve a better understanding of different emotional
states, and gain better insights into other people's motivations and
intentions. So let the play begin!

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