Why kids can learn more from tales of fantasy than realism

Fantasy learning

Deena Weisberg is a senior fellow in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty is “imaginative cognition,” which studies how imagination boosts one’s ability to learn. Her research demonstrates that children absorb new material taught in the context of a fanciful scenario better than they do when it’s presented in more realistic terms. In a recent edition of Aeon, she challenges herself with a question she’s grappled with before: Why do fantastical stories stimulate learning?

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.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

Writers of every genre know that a fresh metaphor adds to a reader’s interest and enjoyment. But Weisberg is arguing that there’s more to fantasy stories than just another metaphor. It appears that the act of forming impossible scenarios in one’s mind focuses more of our mental resources and forces us to pay greater attention than ordinary, representational stories of the day-to-day.

In a world where the day-to-day assaults and surrounds us on television, on our phones, and on our computers, the allure of the fantastical is compelling. Maybe even necessary. It would explain why the speculative inspires so many hit movies, TV series, and books these days.

This is hardly revolutionary. We’ve long realized that children learn better when learning is mixed with play — and children are teaching themselves about the world when they invent their own styles of play. Songs, skits, and stories are entertaining and effective learning media.

And hey, if it’s good for the kids …

30 thoughts on “Why kids can learn more from tales of fantasy than realism”

  1. A thought: While other human faculties focus on apprehending and processing reality-as-given, imagination is uniquely devoted to projecting alternate realities and all possible futures. It is the uniquely creative faculty. Giving a kid a scenario where s/he is actively creating a reality rather than passively processing one will always be more engaging. So with due respect to reason and science, I’m all for an imagination-based epistemology! When philosopher-kings and poets rule…

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Reblogged this on A Teacher's Reflections and commented:
    Fairy Tales and fantasy have always captivated children. When they are outside of their own world, which is often a place of an uphill climb to learn and grow, then they can truly be immersed in the story at hand– and understand the characters. That means learning right and wrong, good and evil, and developing a moral compass. Plus, when the mind is open, all the words and vocabulary pour into the brain. The number of words a child hears is directly attributed to academic succes in school. Here’s to Fairy Tales!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Jennie,

      Agreed! When a story works, and you’re immersed in that alternate world, and feel what the characters feel, you’re part of that world.

      I remember when I first discovered that, and will always be grateful to my mother, who introduced me to the power of stories.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. i couldn’t agree more. this is true that kids tend to show more interest in fantasy more than realistic and mundane world. they might find it more compelling but the story does not simply end here; it unlocks the doors to let them see the world with their own perception and inspire them at the same time to do something which they do not see within the surroundings. it helps them to believe that the possibilities are endless. i believe that is a very important tool for kids to learn and motivate them to learn new things.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. AwakeningCALL,

      I’m with you. That’s why kids still love The Cat in the Hat and Charlotte’s Web, while the dismally realistic Dick and Jane anti-readers are now in the trash heap of pedagogy.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.