Children prefer reality-based playtime to fantasy

Worldwide studies are suggesting that children would much rather pretend to be grown-ups than pretend to be fantasy figures like Elsa or Spider-Man.

Most parents today would much rather drop their kid in front of an iPad or TV and let them binge on stories about super-cold princesses and their anthropomorphic snowman*, aging cars trying to find their place an increasingly capitalistic world**, or mutants facing an existential crisis both with society and within their own peoples***. 

But (record scratch)... kids don't want that. 

A study presented in this month's Science News Magazine suggests that children would much rather play in the real world than in a fantasy land; i.e.: children respond better and even learn better when their stimuli are based in the real world. The research for the articles draws from 10 studies conducted in 2017, by more than a dozen different researchers across the globe. The most prominently featured is The real thing: preschoolers prefer actual activities to pretend ones (Jessica Taggart, Megan J. Heise, Angeline S. Lillard), that states: 

Here we examined, for nine different activities, American middle-class preschoolers' preferences for pretend and real activities. The 100 children we tested (M = 58.5 months, range 36 to 82 months) overwhelmingly preferred real activities to pretend ones, and this preference increased from age 3 to age 4, then remained steady through age 6. Children provided cogent justifications for their preferences.

In another study, the snappily-titled Young children distinguish between different unrealistic fictional genres, children expressed a greater interest in reality-based stories than other genres, preferring by a wide ratio (between 40%—70%) to end stories realistically than with a fantasy-based or sci-fi ending. 

Children tended to choose the realistic ending when asked to choose between this ending and a matching unrealistic ending, replicating previous work that children have a bias toward reality when completing stories.

While storytime and imagination are most certainly important to an upbringing, these studies suggest that perhaps western parenting leans too hard on escapism. Angeline Lillard, a psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, states within her study “Kids like to do real things because they want a role in the real world. Our society has gone overboard in stressing the importance of pretense and fantasy for young children.”


* Frozen
** Cars
*** X-Men, the Marvel universe



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