By the time kids are three years old, they begin to grasp the difference between fantasy and reality. However, it’s not always clear to parents that kids can make the distinction. That’s because preschoolers also often begin to experiment with the boundaries of fantasy vs. reality. This may happen through actions such as introducing you to an imaginary friend or regularly pretend that a particular object around the house is actually something else. Most of this is harmless imaginary play, but sometimes their experimentation becomes a bit more involved, such as making sure you set a plate for the imaginary friend at the dinner table.
As children begin to read more books and watch more television shows, they’re introduced to more elements of a fantasy world. For example, reading a story such as Cinderella introduces them to fairy godmothers and talking animals.
A healthy dose of fantasy is okay, but too much fantasy can cause kids to become confused. Here are a few strategies for helping kids learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Connect Fantasy with Movies and Books
Most of the places kids are exposed to elements of fantasy are in movies, on television, or in books. When elements of fantasy are presented in these areas, kids are more likely to realize they’re not real. For example, scientists performed a study where they made up words. When they presented the words in a scientific context, kids thought they were real. When they presented the words as part of a fantasy story, kids knew they were made up. Kids learn quickly that what they see on television or read in books isn’t necessarily real, so they’re more willing to enjoy elements of fantasy in a healthy way when they see them in those contexts.
Some experts, such as Maria Montessori, think kids should only be exposed to non-fiction texts. Others think fiction is a great way to spark creative thinking. The key is to not limit kids to one or the other. Instead, expose kids to both. Kids will learn to distinguish fantasy from reality better if they have clear examples of both. So after reading a book like Cinderella, read a book about a real woman in history, such as Helen Keller. Kids can then begin to see where fantasy and reality intersect and also see how they are different.
Point Out What is Real and What is Not Real
Another way to help kids distinguish between fantasy and reality is to talk about what is real and what is not real. For example, while reading Cinderella, kids may point out that a fairy godmother is not real, but that having a stepmother could be real. When you’re reading a book or watching a movie, you can even make a chart and list the items that are real or not real to help make it clear to kids what elements are based in fantasy.
Turn On the Lights
Of course, sometimes just telling kids what is fantasy and what is reality doesn’t help. For example, kids may think the shadows in their room at night are monsters. Simply telling them that their are not any monsters in their room may not alleviate their fears, but turning on the lights and showing them what objects make the shadows might. When it comes to elements of fantasy, sometimes it’s helpful to “turn on the lights” and show kids the truth behind the fantasy. For example, you may show kids how a magic trick is really done or watch a video that goes behind the scenes of one of their favorite movies.
However, you don’t have to spoil every fantasy for kids. Believing in fantasy is fun. Often times, kids know that the elements of fantasy that they see aren’t real, but pretending they are real offers them a nice escape from reality. As long as kids are spending most of their time in the real world, a healthy dose of fantasy is okay.