Children have a lot of learning to do. Arguably, this is the purpose of childhood: to provide children with protected time so that they can focus on learning how to communicate, how the world around them works, what values their culture finds important, and so on. Given the massive amount of information that children need to absorb, it would seem prudent for them to spend as much of this protected time as possible engaged in the serious study of real-world issues and problems.
Yet anyone who has spent time around young children knows that they hardly look like a set of serious, focused scholars. Instead, children spend a lot of their time singing songs, running around, and making a mess – that is, playing. Not only do they take great joy in uncovering the structure of reality through their exploratory play, children (like many adults) also tend to be deeply attracted to unrealistic games and stories. They pretend to have magical, superhero powers, and imagine interactions with impossible beings such as mermaids and dragons.
For a long time, both parents and researchers assumed that these flights of fancy were, at best, harmless episodes of fun – perhaps necessary to let off a little steam now and then, but with no real purpose. At worst, some have argued that these were dangerous distractions from the important task of understanding the real world, or manifestations of an unhealthy confusion about the barrier between reality and fiction. But new work in developmental science shows that not only are children perfectly capable of separating reality from fiction, but also that an attraction to fantastical scenarios might actually be helpful to their learning.
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A large body of literature in psychology has shown that the more similar the learning context is to the context where the information is eventually going to be applied, the better. This strongly suggests that the realistic books should have helped children learn the meanings of words better and report them more accurately on the post-test. But our study showed exactly the opposite: the fantasy books, the ones that were less similar to reality, allowed children to learn more.
In more recent work, our lab has been replicating the effect. One ongoing study is finding that children learn new facts about animals better from fantastical stories than from realistic ones. Other researchers, using a variety of methods and measures, have shown that representations of seemingly impossible events can help children’s learning. For example, infants are more prepared to accept new information when they are surprised, thus violating their assumptions about the physical world.
What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.
A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.
Link to the rest at Aeon