Is the Tooth Fairy real? How about the garbage man? Those questions may seem trivial, but how young children answer them is an important indicator of cognitive development.
For years, imagination was thought of as a way for children to escape from reality, and once they reached a certain age, it was believed they would push fantasy aside and deal with the real world. But, increasingly, child-development experts are recognizing the importance of imagination and the role it plays in understanding reality. Imagination is necessary for learning about people and events we don’t directly experience, such as history or events on the other side of the world. For young kids, it allows them to ponder the future, such as what they want to do when they grow up.
“Whenever you think about the Civil War or the Roman Empire or possibly God, you’re using your imagination,” says Paul Harris, a development psychologist and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies imagination. “The imagination is absolutely vital for contemplating reality, not just those things we take to be mere fantasy.”
Psychologists like Jacqueline Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, are studying the process of “magical thinking,” or children’s fantasy lives, and how kids learn to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.
The hope is that understanding how children’s cognition typically develops will also help scientists better understand developmental delays and conditions such as autism. For instance, there is evidence that imagination and role play appears to have a key role in helping children take someone else’s perspective, says Dr. Harris. Kids with autism, on the other hand, don’t engage in much pretend play, leading some to suggest that the lack of such activity contributes to their social deficits, according to Dr. Harris.
Dr. Woolley’s group at the Children’s Research Laboratory has conducted a series of studies involving Santa, the Tooth Fairy and a newly made-up character known as the “Candy Witch” in order to examine the age at which children are able to distinguish between real and fictional entities and how they process contexts and cues when dealing with them.
In one study involving 91 children, Dr. Woolley asked young kids if a number of people and characters, including Santa and the garbage man, were real. She found that 70% of 3-year-olds reported that Santa Claus was real, while 78% believed in the garbage man. By age 5, kids’ certainty about the garbage man grew, and Santa believers peaked at 83%. It wasn’t until age 7 that belief in Santa declined. By 9, only a third believed in Santa while nearly all reported the garbage man was real.
So, “if kids have the basic distinction between real and not real when they’re 3, why do they believe in Santa until they’re 8?” says Dr. Woolley.
The researchers found that while children as young as 3 understand the concept of what is real and what isn’t, until they are about 7 kids can be easily misled by adults’ persuasive words or by “evidence.” They hold onto their beliefs about some fantastical characters—like Santa—longer than others, such as monsters or dragons. Most of the kids in the study were Christian, and the numbers of those who believed in Santa would likely be smaller if there were children of other religious backgrounds in the sample, says Dr. Woolley.
Evidence of Santa
Logically, from what young kids observe, it makes sense to think that Santa is real, says Dr. Woolley. And Santa and the trash collector share certain characteristics. Both are people whom kids have heard about but have likely never met before. There is proof for Santa’s existence—the gifts that appear on Christmas morning—as well as for the garbage man’s—he makes trash disappear—even though kids don’t usually see them in action. A 5-year-old has the cognitive skills to put together the pieces of evidence, but because the pieces are misleading, he or she comes to the wrong conclusion. Younger children may not have the cognitive skills to put the pieces of evidence together, so may in fact be less likely to believe in Santa’s existence. The realness of some other characters, such as Sesame Street’s Elmo, can perplex kids because they know Elmo is a puppet, but does that make him real or not?
Dr. Woolley has also looked to see what types of cues and contexts are most convincing to children. In another experiment involving 44 children, her research team went into preschoolers’ classrooms and told them about a new character dubbed the Candy Witch, a friendly woman who arrives on Halloween and replaces the candy kids have collected with a toy. The researchers showed the kids a picture of the witch, and in some cases told the parents to provide “evidence” of the witch’s existence by making the candy and toy swap at home.
Nearly two-thirds of the children were convinced that the Candy Witch was real. Those kids who were “visited” by the witch were more convinced of it. And, like with Santa Claus, older preschoolers, who were on average 5 years old, were more convinced than younger preschoolers who averaged 3.5 years old. These results were published in the journal Developmental Science in 2004.
Impossible or Improbable
Currently, she and her students are examining another concept related to reality: when an event is impossible versus improbable. Experimenters show children various pictures and give a brief description. They then ask the child whether he or she thinks the scene is real or not real by placing it on a book shelf where the “things that can actually happen” are filed or a different shelf where things that aren’t real go.
One recent morning, 5-year-old Mia, wearing a flowery blue dress, arrived at the lab with her father and her small plastic purple pony. One of the scenarios was “Sarah owned a peacock as a pet.” When asked whether this scene was real or not, Mia immediately answered, “not real.” And why is that? “Because nobody owns a peacock,” she said. Another scenario—”Julia jumped in the air and never came back down”—also wasn’t real because “nobody wants to live in the clouds where they can’t see the sky,” said Mia.
Her responses are typical for her age, says Dr. Woolley. Early results suggest that 5-year-olds don’t yet have the ability to distinguish what is impossible from what is unlikely to happen but could technically happen. In future work, Dr. Woolley and her collaborators plans to investigate whether a researcher acknowledging that the situation is strange alters kids’ views of whether the scenario is real.
What Should Parents Do?
It is important but not necessary for parents to encourage fantasy play in their children, says Dr. Woolley. If the child already has an imaginary friend, for instance, parents should follow their children’s lead and offer encouragement if they are comfortable doing so, she says. Similarly, with Santa, if a child seems excited by the idea, parents can encourage it. But if parents choose not to introduce or encourage the belief in fictitious characters, they should look for other ways to encourage their children’s imaginations, such as by playing dress-up or reading fiction.
If a child asks if the Tooth Fairy or Santa is real, parents might want to assess their child’s level of doubt. If the doubts appear strong then the child might be ready and it is time for the truth. Ideally, the child will find out for him or herself, like a little scientist, so parents might ask, “Is there something you saw or heard that makes you think Santa isn’t real?” and “What do you think?”
“You want to find a balance to lets [children] be open to possibility but also to question,” says Dr. Woolley.
Fantasy play is correlated with other positive attributes. In preschool children, for example, those who have imaginary friends are more creative, have greater social understanding and are better at taking the perspective of others, according to Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of the book “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.”
Imaginary friends can also be used to help children cope with stress, Dr. Taylor says. “This is a strength of children, their ability to pretend,” she says. “They can fix the problem with their imagination.”