Nearly all children enjoy getting lost in fantastical worlds. But why they use their imagination so much is a question that has puzzled scientists who study human behavior for decades. In the early 20th century, psychologists suspected that imaginative activities were frivolous and fun, but without any real purpose. Kids, they reasoned, would need to leave fantasy behind in order to fully develop into mature thinkers. More recently, a different viewpoint has emerged. Play is now seen as crucially important for children's development. When kids play, for instance, they can reenact events that scared or confused them as a way of making sense of these experiences. Advocates for free play argue that unstructured time for imaginative activities can help children be happier, more creative and more social.
For many years, psychologists assumed play helped children test-drive real situations. Pretending to be a doctor, for example, might be useful for learning information about the body or health care. Recent research suggests that fantasy play can also be a powerful influence over learning. Psychologists are finding that unrealistic situations can be surprisingly good for helping children learn. Fantasies can help children learn but do not explain why an unusual context would be better than a realistic one in helping kids acquire real-world knowledge. When something extraordinary is happening in a story or game, children may pay closer attention. This not only adds to the appeal of an activity, such as make-believe, it can also help children learn more from a given situation.
We have long underestimated the power of a child's flight of fancy. There could be educational contexts that are particularly ripe for this fantasy advantage. Much of physics, for instance, relies on testing the natural world's limits. Children are often captivated by an object's ability to seemingly defy gravity. Reality is often unintuitive, forcing scientists to grapple with unlikely possibilities for how the world works. Fictional worlds that bear less resemblance to reality may help throw reality into sharper view, making it easier for children to understand and hence learn new information.
Parents and teachers can encourage children's engagement with fantasy. If fantastical elements are especially helpful to learning, as the current research is finding, it would encourage children's fantasy-based play and provide them with stories that deliberately break the laws of reality. Thinking about unrealistic possibilities can help create informative contrasts with how reality does and does not work. Children's attraction to superheroes, dragons, and wizards offer perfect opportunities to ask young learners, "Could dragons be real?" or "What would happen if you could become invisible?"