Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.
Imaginative literature—or fantasy—can benefit child development. A growing body of research supports exposing kids to imaginary worlds, in addition to learning about the real world.
Parents and teachers are inundated with a plethora of “methods” for raising kids. But what if one of the best tools for raising a thriving child was simply reading a book together, specifically a book with enchantment, magic, or dragons?
Fantasy Helps Kids Problem Solve
Let’s look at a recent study by the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Researchers assessed the impact of different levels of exposure to a children’s fantasy story on the ability of 5-year-olds to independently problem solve.
In this study, researchers read 5-year-olds a short picture book containing essentially the same story. A girl named Janie faces a problem: how to bypass a barrier fence to feed a hungry, barking dog. Janie gets creative. She rolls a sheet of newspaper into a funnel. Then, she uses the funnel to slide dog food between the fence slats into the dog’s dish.
Researchers divided the 5-year-olds into groups. Each group heard a version of Janie’s story with different degrees of fantasy, ranging from zero (realistic) to deep (violating physical laws).
Then, researchers asked the children to solve a problem similar to the problem they had just seen Janie solve. How to move marbles into a bowl hidden behind a slitted cardboard box with the help of only a few ordinary materials, including a magazine. The children received no guidance from researchers on how to accomplish this task.
Researchers found that the children exposed to the most fantasy-heavy version of Janie’s story were most likely to successfully complete the problem solving task. Specifically, children showed the highest problem solving abilities under these two conditions:
- The 5-year-olds were read a version of Janie’s story with “deep fantasy” elements, meaning outright violations of physical laws, like Janie flying and walking through walls.
- The 5-year-olds encountered the deep fantasy story elements in a certain order. Specifically, they saw Janie flying and walking through walls before they saw Janie face and solve the problem of how to feed the dog.
This research indicates that exposing children to imaginative literature will help them learn to be flexible, creative and innovative in the face of challenges.
Emotional Benefits of Imaginative Literature for Kids
Reading fantasy can have therapeutic benefits for kids.
A recent study published by Cambridge University Press found that imaginative literature and imaginative play can have a protective effect on children who have experienced trauma or who live in an unsafe environment.
Further, researchers have found that fantasy has cognitive benefits for children in safe, but challenging situations. For example, adapting to a new school, learning a difficult new skill, or moving cross-country.
Children who engaged with deep fantasy during challenging times have shown cognitive advantages over children who did not do so. Cambridge researchers found evidence that immersive experience in a new, fantastic world—different from a child’s ordinary world—helps a child adjust to distressing experiences like parents divorcing, or losing a parent.
For children enduring trauma, their safety should be our first priority. However, we should also feel empowered by research suggesting that children who “escape” into deep fantasy worlds—by reading books or through imaginative play—do better at coping and thriving over the long term.
“It was a means of escape, creating my own little universe by myself.”–Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, on the benefit of drawing as a child
Overcoming Objections to Reading Fantasy
I recently encountered a parent who cited a quote from C. S. Lewis denouncing the practice of sorcery as so-called “evidence” for why it is dangerous for children to read fantasy books. I’m surprised when anyone cites magic as a “reason” to avoid fantasy. Especially if they also admire authors like C. S. Lewis, famous for writing a children’s fantasy titled The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Lewis was close friends with J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those who object to magic in children’s books may value Tolkien’s opinion on the flavor of magic that he thinks defines a great fantasy tale. He says fantasy “… may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician.”
The villains in Tolkien’s and Lewis’ fantasies do practice nefarious magic. The same goes for more modern works of children’s fantasy, like the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling where the villains practice dark magic—not Harry, his mentors, or his friends.
“I wanted to be part of [a world] … with people coming together in community and fighting together for good.”—Jazzy, a young reader, describing why she enjoys the Harry Potter series in Scholastic’s Reading Unbound
Books where evil wizards use magic to do bad things will not inspire children to become evil sorcerers anymore than Agatha Christie mysteries inspire readers to become murderers.
5 Indicators of Great Imaginative Literature
Personal preference plays a role in the books we enjoy. However, here are five general criteria that may be helpful in finding your family’s next great fantasy read:
- FUN. A fantasy should entertain you. Art and entertainment go together like peanut butter and jelly; they are not mutually exclusive.
- CLARITY. Nothing is worse than a fantasy that is impossible to follow. Tolkien wrote in simple, timeless language without compromising artistic beauty.
- INSPIRING CHARACTERS. If you walk away from a fantasy series without feeling inspired by the characters, then the fantasy has failed you.
- AN ELEMENT OF MYSTERY. One tool in every writer’s toolbox is the ability to describe highly sensory experiences, including violence. A writer wisely wields this tool like a carpenter wielding her sharpest saw to build a beautiful chair without hacking the wood or severing her fingers. Great fantasy pulls readers in as active participants, not passive consumers. One risk of excessive description is depriving the reader of the chance to exercise their imagination.
- STRONG WORDS. Fantasy is inherently subversive in the way it forces us to look at the world around us with fresh vision. But fantasy’s rebellious power can be dulled by extraneous words. A good story is concise, without asking the reader to spend time with words that do not contribute the story.
Speaking of rebellious, E. B. White’s book, Charlotte’s Web, was censored because people thought talking animals might be offensive. E. B. White is an example of a children’s author who trusts young readers enough to use their imaginations. He never bloats his stories with frivolous words. His books are a good introduction to fantasy because they are set in realistic environments but feature anthropomorphic animals.
Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote from an American novelist who won countless awards for her fantasy and science fiction. She highlights what I consider to be one of the best indicators of high quality fantasy, its ability to transform us:
“A fantasy is a journey. …and it will change you.”—Ursula K. Le Guin
Sources and Further Reading
- For adults, I recommend reading the entirety of the academic studies cited above.
- Children new to fantasy may enjoy reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s picture book series, Catwings.
- Pete Docter’s quote can be found in Quiet Power by Susan Cain.
- Jazzy’s quote is from Reading Unbound by Jeffrey D. Wilhem and Michael W. Smith with Sharon Fransen, a Scholastic publication.
- Related Post: Raise a Reader: Tips from Teachers