Can Children Understand the Difference Between Fantasy and Reality?

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Young children are often immersed in fantasy, and therefore, parents, teachers, and even scholars often think of them as being unable to distinguish reality from unreality. However, research suggests that children are more thoughtful about the differences between fantasy and reality than they may appear to adults.

In fact, children use many of the same cues as adults to decide whether something is real or not. So while young children are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality as successfully as adults, they become more capable of doing so as they advance developmentally and acquire more knowledge about the world.

How Children's Development Impacts Their Understanding of Fantasy and Reality

Around the age of two, children begin to play pretend.They also believe in fantasy beings like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and often have imaginary friends. And indeed, young children have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality.

However, between the ages of three and 10, children gradually become more sophisticated in their ability to understand the difference. For example, young preschoolers tend to believe everything they see on TV is real, yet by five or six they understand that if something violates physical reality, such as the special effects or animation in their favorite TV programs, it's not real.

Between the ages of 5- and 8-years-old, children's interest in playing pretend decreases and they become less likely to believe in fantasy characters. Then, between the ages of eight and 12, they become increasingly focused on realism and seek to understand the real world through their toys, games, and entertainment.

In fact, at this stage, children become critical of TV shows that don't seem realistic. It's around this same time that children become less interested in playing pretend.

This trajectory can be seen in one studyon children's perceptions of fictional TV characters. The investigation found that 4-year-old participants believed Big Bird from Sesame Street was real. However, 5- to 6-year-old participants knew that Big Bird was a man wearing a costume, as they had come to understand that the character violates physical reality.

On the other hand, the study also found that because a fictional family on a live-action TV show, such as the Dunphys on the show Modern Family or the Bradys from The Brady Bunch, doesn't violate physical reality—and even resembles something familiar to children—children as old as nine and 10 still believed that this kind of TV family was real.

What Cues Do Children Use to Distinguish Between Fantasy and Reality?

Research has shown that children and adults tend to use similar methods and rely on similar cues to distinguish between fantasy and reality. These methods and cues are discussed below.

Evaluating Context

When adults are presented with new information, we judge the truth of that information based on the context in which we find it.

Although this has become more challenging today when there are so many sources of information that different people judge different sources as more or less reliable, we should generally be able to agree that if we read about the discovery of aliens on a blog that we've never heard of, we should be skeptical of the information.

In contrast, if we read about the news on the website for NASA, we should be more inclined to believe it.

A study involving 3- to 6-year-olds showed that children also used context clues when they were told about animals they weren't familiar with. When they heard that the new animals were collected by dragons or ghosts—a fantastical context—they were less likely to believe the animals really existed than if they were told they were used by doctors or scientists—a scientific context. These results were seen with participants as young as 4 years old.

 Existing Knowledge

Another thing adults do when we encounter new information is compare it to the knowledge we already possess. If what we know lends support to the new information, we'll decide it's plausible.

However, if the information doesn't make sense based on what we already know about the world, we'll reject it as false.

Research involving children between the ages of 5 and 8 has shown that children also use their existing knowledge to judge the reliability of new information the only difference is that children have acquired less knowledge about the world than adults have.

Plus, adults have a tendency to regale children with stories about magical events and fantastical beings, such as talking wolves, houses made of candy, and overweight men who slide down chimneys and deliver gifts on Christmas. This makes children more willing to believe in fantasy.

As they mature and acquire more knowledge, though, children become more capable of accurately distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Evaluating Expertise

Of course, much of the information both adults and children are exposed to is the result of encounters with other people. However, we don't believe just anyone. Adults are far more likely to believe that a specific kind of food isn't good for us if we hear it from a doctor acquaintance on LinkedIn than we are if we hear it from our conspiracy theorist Facebook friend.

Research has demonstrated that children do the same thing. When child study participants were asked to decide if a new kind of fish was real or not, they were more likely to believe the animal existed if a zookeeper, someone who would be considered an expert, claimed it did than if a chef, a non-expert, did so.

How Can Adults Help Children Learn to Distinguish Fantasy from Reality?

Children know adults are more knowledgeable than they are, and therefore they are more likely to believe the information that adults share with them than information that comes from other children. Consequently, adults can play a role in helping children learn to understand the difference between fantasy and reality.

In particular, parents and guardians can provide guidance during storytelling or while reading, watching TV or movies, or interacting with online content simply by being there to answer children's questions and helping to minimize misunderstandings about what is real and what isn't. Media literacy programs, when they are available, can help children learn to distinguish fantasy from reality as well.

That said, if your child believes in Santa Claus or Big Bird, psychology scholar Jacqueline Woolley says there's no reason to discourage them. Children don't come to distrust adults when they learn that these fantasy figures aren't real.

Moreover, engaging with these figures gives children the chance to develop their abilities to distinguish fantasy from reality. Besides, one way or another, by the time children reach early adolescence, they have acquired enough knowledge and matured enough that their aptitude for discerning fantasy from reality is similar to that of an adult.

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