When it’s playtime, many kids prefer reality over fantasy

Children may enjoy practical activities far more than we thought

child's hands helping adult roll out dough

THE REALITIES OF PLAY  Just like kids in hunter-gatherer and herding communities, many children in Western societies prefer play that mimics the things that adults do.


Young children travel to fantasy worlds every day, packing just imaginations and a toy or two.

Some preschoolers scurry across ocean floors carrying toy versions of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. Other kids trek to distant universes with miniature replicas of Star Wars robots R2-D2 and C-3PO. Throngs of youngsters fly on broomsticks and cast magic spells with Harry Potter and his Hogwarts buddies. The list of improbable adventures goes on and on.

Parents today take for granted that kids need toys to fuel what comes naturally — outlandish bursts of make-believe. Kids’ flights of fantasy are presumed to soar before school and life’s other demands yank the youngsters down to Earth.

Yet some researchers call childhood fantasy play — which revolves around invented characters and settings with no or little relationship to kids’ daily lives — highly overrated. From at least the age when they start talking, little ones crave opportunities to assist parents at practical tasks and otherwise learn how to be productive members of their cultures, these investigators argue.

New findings support the view that children are geared more toward helping than fantasizing. Preschoolers would rather perform real activities, such as cutting vegetables or feeding a baby, than pretend to do those same things, scientists say. Even in the fantastical realm of children’s fiction books, reality may have an important place. Young U.S. readers show signs of learning better from human characters than from those ever-present talking pigs and bears.

Among South America’s Matsés hunter-gatherers, adults allow young children, such as this girl, to play with knives. Khaled Hakami
Studies of children in traditional societies illustrate the dominance of reality-based play outside modern Western cultures. Kids raised in hunter-gatherer communities, farming villages and herding groups rarely play fantasy games. Children typically play with real tools, or small replicas of tools, in what amounts to practice for adult work. Playgroups supervised by older children enact make-believe versions of what adults do, such as sharing hunting spoils.

These activities come much closer to the nature of play in ancient human groups than do childhood fantasies fueled by mass-produced toys, videos and movies, researchers think.

Handing over household implements to toddlers and preschoolers and letting them play at working, or allowing them to lend a hand on daily tasks, generates little traction among Western parents, says psychologist Angeline Lillard of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Many adults, leaning heavily on adult-supervised playdates, assume preschoolers and younger kids need to be protected from themselves. Lillard suspects that preschoolers, whose early helping impulses get rebuffed by anxious parents, often rebel when told to start doing household chores a few years later.

“Kids like to do real things because they want a role in the real world,” Lillard says. “Our society has gone overboard in stressing the importance of pretense and fantasy for young children.”

Keep it real

Lillard suspects most preschoolers agree with her.

More than 40 years of research fails to support the widespread view that playing pretend games generates special social or mental benefits for young children, Lillard and colleagues wrote in a 2013 review in Psychological Bulletin. Studies that track children into their teens and beyond are sorely needed to establish any beneficial effects of pretending to be other people or acting out imaginary situations, the researchers concluded.

Even the assumption that kids naturally gravitate toward make-believe worlds may be unrealistic. When given a choice, 3- to 6-year-olds growing up in the United States — one of many countries saturated with superhero movies, video games and otherworldly action figures — preferred performing real activities over pretending to do them, Lillard and colleagues reported online June 20 in Developmental Science.

One hundred youngsters, most of them white and middle class, were tested either in a children’s museum, a preschool or a university laboratory. An experimenter showed each child nine pairs of photographs. Each photo in a pair featured a boy or a girl, to match the sex of the youngster being tested. One photo showed a child in action. Depicted behaviors included cutting vegetables with a knife, talking on a telephone and bottle-feeding a baby. In the second photo, a different child pretended to do what the first child did for real.

When asked by the experimenter whether they would rather, say, cut real vegetables with a knife like the first child or pretend to do so like the second child, preschoolers chose the real activity almost two-thirds of the time. Among the preschoolers, hard-core realists outnumbered fans of make-believe, the researchers found. Whereas 16 kids always chose real activities, only three wanted to pretend on every trial. Just as strikingly, 48 children (including seven of 26 of the 3-year-olds) chose at least seven real activities of the nine depicted. Only 14 kids (mostly the younger ones) selected at least seven pretend activities.

Kids often said they liked real activities for practical reasons, such as wanting to learn how to feed babies to help mom. Hands-on activities also got endorsed for being especially fun or novel. “I’ve never talked on the real phone,” one child explained. Reasons for choosing pretend activities centered on being afraid of the real activity or liking to pretend.

In a preliminary follow-up study directed by Lillard, 16 girls and boys, ages 3 to 6, chose between playing with 10 real objects, such as a microscope, or toy versions of the same objects. During 10-minute play periods, kids spent an average of about twice as much time with real items. That preference for real things increased with age. Three-year-olds spent nearly equal time playing with genuine and pretend items, but the older children strongly preferred the real deal.

Lillard’s findings illustrate that kids want and need real experiences, says psychologist Thalia Goldstein of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “Modern definitions of childhood have swung too far toward thinking that young children should live in a world of fantasy and magic,” she maintains.

But pretend play, including fantasy games, still has value in fostering youngsters’ social and emotional growth, Goldstein and Matthew Lerner of Stony Brook University in New York reported online September 15 in Developmental Science. After participating in 24 play sessions, 4- and 5-year-olds from poor families were tested on empathy and other social skills. Those who played dramatic pretend games (being a superhero, animal or chef, for instance) were less likely than kids who played with blocks or read stories to become visibly upset upon seeing an experimenter who the kids believed had hurt a knee or finger, the researchers found. Playing pretend games enabled kids to rein in distress at seeing the experimenter in pain, the researchers proposed.

It’s not known whether fantasy- and reality-based games shape kids’ social skills in different ways over the long haul, Goldstein says.

True fiction

Even on the printed page, where youngsters gawk at Maurice Sendak’s goggle-eyed Wild Things and Dr. Seuss’ mustachioed Lorax, the real world exerts a special pull.

Consider 4- to 6-year-olds who were read either a storybook about a little raccoon that learns to share with other animals or the same storybook with illustrations of human characters learning to share. Both versions told of how characters felt better after giving some of what they had to others. A third set of kids heard an illustrated storybook about seeds that had nothing to do with sharing. Each group consisted of 32 children.

Only kids who heard the realistic story displayed a general willingness to act on its message, reported a team led by psychologist Patricia Ganea of the University of Toronto in a paper published online August 2 in Developmental Science. On a test of children’s willingness to share any of 10 stickers with a child described as unable to participate in the experiment, listeners to the tale with human characters forked over an average of nearly three stickers, about one more than the kids had donated before the experiment.

Children who heard stories with animal characters became less giving, sharing an average of 1.7 stickers after having originally donated an average of 2.3 stickers. Sticker sharing declined similarly among kids who heard the seed story. These results fit with several previous studies showing that preschoolers more easily apply knowledge learned from realistic stories to the real world, as opposed to information encountered in fantasy stories.

Even for fiction stories that are highly unrealistic, youngsters generally favor realistic endings, say Boston University psychologist Melissa Kibbe and colleagues. In a study from the team published online June 15 in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, an experimenter read 90 children, ages 4 to 6, one of three illustrated versions of a story. In the tale, a child gets lost on the way to a school bus. A realistic version was set in a present-day city. A futuristic science fiction version was set on the moon. A fantasy version occurred in medieval times and included magical characters. Stories ended with descriptions and illustrations of a child finally locating either a typical school bus, a futuristic school bus with rockets on its sides or a magical coach with dragon wings.

drawings of real and imaginary school buses
When given a choice, youngsters often used a drawing of a realistic school bus (middle), rather than a futuristic or magical one, to end stories containing futuristic or magical themes. M. Kibbe et al/Psych. of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts 2017
When given the chance, 40 percent of kids inserted a typical school bus into the ending for the science fiction story and nearly 70 percent did so for the fantasy tale. “Children have a bias toward reality when completing stories,” Kibbe says.

Hands on

Outside Western cultures, children’s bias toward reality takes an extreme turn, especially during play.

Nothing keeps it real like a child merrily swinging around a sharp knife as adults go about their business. That’s cause for alarm in Western households. But in many foraging communities, children play with knives and even machetes with their parents’ blessing, says anthropologist David Lancy of Utah State University in Logan.

Lancy describes reported instances of youngsters from hunter-gatherer groups playing with knives in his 2017 book Raising Children. Among Maniq foragers inhabiting southern Thailand’s forests, for instance, one researcher observed a father looking on approvingly as his baby crawled along holding a knife about as long as a dollar bill. The same investigator observed a 4-year-old Maniq girl sitting by herself cutting pieces of vegetation with a machete.

In East Africa, a Hadza infant can grab a knife and suck on it undisturbed, at least until an adult needs to use the tool. On Vanatinai Island in the South Pacific, children freely experiment with knives and pieces of burning wood from campfires.

Yes, accidents happen. That doesn’t mean hunter-gatherer parents are uncaring or indifferent toward their children, Lancy says. In these egalitarian societies, where sharing food and other resources is the norm, parents believe it’s wrong to impose one’s will on anyone, including children. Hunter-gatherer adults assume that a child learns best through hands-on, sometimes risky, exploration on his or her own and in groups with other kids. In that way, the adults’ thinking goes, youngsters develop resourcefulness, creativity and determination. Self-inflicted cuts and burns represent learning opportunities.

In many societies, adults make miniature tools for children to play with or give kids cast-off tools to use as toys. For instance, Inuit boys have been observed mimicking seal hunts with items supplied by parents, such as pieces of sealskin and miniature harpoons. Girls in Ecuador’s Conambo tribe mold clay balls provided by their mothers into various shapes as a first step toward becoming potters.

Childhood games and toys in foraging groups and farming villages, as in Western nations, reflect cultural values. Hunter-gatherer kids rarely engage in rough-and-tumble or competitive games. In fact, competition is discouraged. These kids concoct games with no winners, such as throwing a weighted feather in the air and flicking the feather back up as it descends. Children in many farming villages and herding societies play basic forms of marbles, in which each player shoots a hard object at similar objects to knock the targets out of a defined area. The rules change constantly as players decide among themselves what counts and what doesn’t.

Children in traditional societies don’t invent fantasy characters to play with, Lancy says. Consider imaginative play among children of Aka foragers in the Central African Republic. These kids may pretend to be forest animals, but the animals are creatures from the children’s surroundings, such as antelope. The children aim to take the animals’ perspective to determine what route to follow while exploring, says anthropologist Adam Boyette of Duke University. Aka youngsters sometimes pretend to be spirits that adults have told the kids about. In this way, kids become familiar with community beliefs and rituals.

Aka children playing
In Africa, children of Aka hunter-gatherers build a figure of a forest spirit out of plants. Such play activities introduce the youngsters to adults’ religious world. A. Boyette

Aka childhood activities are geared toward adult work, Boyette says. Girls start foraging for food within the first few years of life. Boys take many years to master dangerous tasks, such as climbing trees to raid honey from bees’ nests (SN: 8/20/16, p. 10). By around age 7, boys start to play hunting games and graduate to real hunts as teenagers.

In 33 hunter-gatherer societies around the world, parents typically take 1- to 2-year-olds on foraging expeditions and give the youngsters toy versions of tools to manipulate, reported psychologist Sheina Lew-Levy of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues in the December Human Nature. Groups of children at a range of ages play make-believe versions of what adults do and get in some actual practice at tasks such as toolmaking. Youngsters generally become proficient food collectors and novice toolmakers between ages 8 and 12, the researchers conclude. Adults, but not necessarily parents, begin teaching hunting and complex toolmaking skills to teens. For the report, Lew-Levy’s group reviewed 58 papers on childhood learning among hunter-gatherers, most published since 2000.

“There’s a blurred line between work and play in foraging societies because children are constantly rehearsing for adult roles by playing,” Boyette says.

Children in Western societies can profitably mix fantasy with playful rehearsals for adult tasks, observes George Mason’s Goldstein, who was a professional stage actor before opting for steadier academic work. “My 5-year-old son is never happier than when he’s helping to check us out at the grocery store,” she says. “But he also likes to pretend to be a robot, and sometimes a robot who checks us out at the grocery store.”

Not too far in the future, preschoolers pretending to be robots may encounter real robots running grocery-store checkouts. Playtime will never be the same. 

This story appears in the February 3, 2018 issue of Science News with the headline, “The realities of play: Practical pursuits send kids’ fantasy games to the time-out corner.”

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