The Real Reason Children Love Fantasy

Kids aren’t escapists, they’re little scientists.

Learning to love fantasy

This Christmas innumerable children will be immersed in worlds of noble lions and seductive witches, wizard academies and broomstick sports, and, of course, stout old gentlemen in red suits driving flying reindeer. And these are only the official, public imaginary worlds of childhood. Even more children will be immersed in private imaginary worlds. Three-year-olds will spend all day in the company of tigers and princesses and superheroes. Older children will invent “paracosms,” entire fictional universes with their own politics, economics, and sociology. The fantastic world of children’s books and films is only the tip of the iceberg of children’s imaginary lives.

Adult thinking about children tends always to the grimly instrumental. So, discussions of children’s fantasy lives, like discussions of children’s lives in general, center on whether a particular fantasy, or fantasy in general, is Good or Bad for children. (There is a lot of that discussion around both Harry Potter and Narnia.) But there is a deeper and more interesting question to ask. Why are children and fantasy linked at all? Why does the marvelous, the wonderful, the fantastic seem to be the natural territory of childhood? And why do children spontaneously choose the unreal over the real?

Some explanations that might once have seemed plausible, and that are still current in the popular imagination, turn out to be just wrong scientifically. There is no evidence that fantasy is therapeutic or that children use fantastic literature to “work out their problems” or as “an escape.” Children’s lives can be tough, certainly, but relatively speaking they are considerably less tough, more protected, more interesting, even, than adult lives. Happy, healthy children are, if anything, more likely to be immersed in a world of fantastic daydreams, public or private, than unhappy or troubled children.

Earlier psychologists, from Freud to Piaget, also suggested that children might be unable to discriminate between reality and fantasy, truth and imagination. It’s not so much that children embraced fantasy as that they were unable to recognize reality. But 20 years of empirical research have shown that this also is simply not true. Even the very youngest children already are perfectly able to discriminate between the imaginary and the real, whether in books or movies or in their own pretend play. Children with the most elaborate and beloved imaginary friends will gently remind overenthusiastic adults that these companions are, after all, just pretend.

In fact, cognitive science suggests that children may love fantasy not because they can’t appreciate the truth or because their lives are difficult, but for precisely the opposite reason. Children may have such an affinity for the imaginary just because they are so single-mindedly devoted to finding the truth, and because their lives are protected in order to allow them to do so.

From an evolutionary perspective children are, literally, designed to learn. Childhood is a special period of protected immaturity. It gives the young breathing time to master the things they will need to know in order to survive as adults. Humans have a longer period of sheltered immaturity, a longer childhood, than any other species. What we call play—in wolves or lions or preschoolers—allows the young to learn in this protected, safe way. A baby wolf can play at chasing and biting other pups and so learn about chasing and biting, without the risks of real chasing and biting.

Wolf pups and lion cubs use play to learn about hunting and affiliation and dominance. So do human children, of course—watch the chasing and biting in any schoolyard. But human children also learn in a distinctively human way. Human beings, unlike other animals, develop everyday theories of the world around them. Two decades of research have shown that children construct and revise an everyday physics and biology and, above all, an everyday psychology. These everyday theories are much like the formal, explicit theories of science. Theorizing lets children understand the world and other people more accurately.

At first, you might think that the idea that children are intuitive scientists would be completely at odds with the childhood passion for fantasy. But in fact, theorizing and fantasizing have a lot in common. A theory, in science or in everyday life, doesn’t just describe one particular way the world happens to be at the moment. Instead, having a theory tells you about the ways the world could have been in the past or might be in the future. What’s more, a theory can tell you that some of those ways the world can be are more likely than others. A theory lays out a map of possible worlds and tells you how probable each possibility is. And a theory provides a kind of logic for getting to conclusions from premises—if the theory is correct, and if you accept certain premises, then certain conclusions and not others will follow. If Newton’s physics is right, then if you accelerate a rocket ship sufficiently, it will escape the earth’s gravity. Of course, in Newton’s day no one had any idea how to do this—but the theory told you what would happen if you did.

This is why theories are so profoundly powerful and adaptive. A theory not only explains the world we see, it lets us imagine other worlds, and, even more significantly, lets us act to create those worlds. Developing everyday theories, like scientific theories, has allowed human beings to change the world. From the perspective of my hunter-gatherer forebears in the Pleistocene Era, everything in the room I write in—the ceramic cup and the carpentered chair no less than the electric light and the computer—was as imaginary, as unreal, as fantastic as Narnia or Hogwarts. The uniquely human evolutionary gift is to combine imagination and logic to articulate possible worlds and then make them real.

Suppose we combine the idea that children are devoted intuitive scientists and the idea that play allows children to learn freely without the practical constraints of adulthood. We can start to see why there should be such a strong link between childhood and fantasy. It’s not that children turn to the imaginary instead of the real—it’s that a human being who learns about the real world is also simultaneously learning about all the possible worlds that stem from that world. And for human children those possibilities are unconstrained by the practical exigencies of adult survival.

The link between the scientific and the fantastic also explains why children’s fantasy demands the strictest logic, consistency, and attention to detail. A fantasy without that logic is just a mess. The effectiveness of the great children’s books comes from the combination of wildly imaginative premises and strictly consistent and logical conclusions from those premises. It is no wonder that the greatest children’s fantasists—Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien—had day jobs in the driest reaches of logic and philology.

Still, we might ask, why do children explore the far and fantastic possible words instead of the close-by sensible ones? The difference between adults and children is that for most adults, most of the time, imagination is constrained by probability and practicality. When we adults use our everyday theories to create possible worlds, we restrict ourselves to the worlds that are likely and the worlds that are useful. When we adults create a possible world, we are usually considering whether we should move in there and figuring out how we can drag all our furniture with us.

But for human children, those practical requirements are suspended, just as the jungle laws of tooth and claw are suspended for young wolves. Children are as free to consider the very low-probability world of Narnia as the much higher-probability world of next Wednesday’s meeting—as free to explore unlikely Middle-earth as the much more predictable park next door.

The point is not that reading fantastic literature or playing fantastic games will make children smarter or more well-adjusted or get better grades in their chemistry classes. Perhaps it’s the inevitable constraints of our adult nature that make us think in terms of these practical future questions. But, still, since it’s Christmas, we might indulge in a moment or two of sheer childlike pleasure in a beautiful reality. The spirit of possibility and play that leads children to read the Narnia books and watch the Harry Potter movies, and to just imagine, is at the heart of what it is to be human.