Fantasy – what role does it play in our child’s development?

Can fantasy aid child development?

So, JK Rowling’s onto another winner then? It seems she’s set to make her screenwriting debut in a new fantasy spin-off  from Harry Potter.

Thousands, no, millions of kids love this stuff – not just Harry Potter, but Lord of the Rings, How to Train Your Dragon, the Narnia Chronicles and oodles more. I know I used to love pretending I was some swashbuckling hero when I was a kid. It was probably Spider Man or Robin Hood – didn’t do Maid Marion ‘cos she just seemed pretty and passive. If Cate Blanchett’s interpretation had been around at the time I think I would have changed my mind. But it wasn’t, so I stuck to the more exciting ‘hero’ parts. Who did you pretend to be? My youngest son is currently alternating between Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III and one of the Thompson Twins from Tintin.

But here’s a thought.

Are these books and films just good entertainment (or possibly ‘bad’, depending on your point of view), or do they offer something more?

I believe they do.

Here’s how.

Five ways fantasy can aid child development


  1. It improves social skills.

According to Dr J Woolley of the University of Texas, “there is research indicating that children who lead fantasy lives have better social skills than other children”. Presumably this is because they are able to put themselves in the shoes of different characters, and that makes them more sensitive to how their real friends might be feeling. It stretches their ability to think and feel in ways they might not yet have experienced personally. In short, it creates endless possibilities for empathy.

  1. It encourages the use of their imagination.

I know a lot of kids have huge amounts of it already, but fantasy games help to nurture it. Sometimes they’ll run around for days with eye patches and swords – or in my son’s case a bowler hat and walking stick – yes, honestly! If they can imagine a fantasy world where food supplies never end and healing potions can be picked up whenever your health starts to dip a bit, then perhaps they will be the ones who figure out the answer to poverty and sickness in the real world. (See my post on fantasy gaming and the comments by Jane McGonigal PhD for an expansion of this argument.)

  1. It inspires them to become heroes.

Most fantasy material contains the moral fight between good and evil, and the opportunity for characters to choose noble actions, thereby ultimately defeating the Great Darkness. These are our heroes and heroines – people who will either fight for us, or whom we can aspire to become. They inspire our children to believe that they too can act upon the world, affect a change and alter the course of history. They too can become heroes.

  1. It provides an opportunity for them to master their fears

Both my boys seem a bit crazy sometimes; they like to get scared. What’s that all about? It’s certainly not my idea of fun. At least not now, although I do remember as a child hiding behind a cushion every Saturday night as Dr Who’s unmistakeable theme tune vibrated across the lounge. I was terrified, but I couldn’t miss it. So maybe my boys aren’t quite as crazy as I thought.

Fantasy stories give children a chance to face their fears in a safe environment, along with the opportunity to feel and experiment with strong emotions. Their indignation at injustice can be very intense. Their anger at cruel tyrants can turn from a simmer to a rage. Is rage ever good? Yes, it can change the world. But that’s another story …

  1. It’s fun.

Have you ever wished you could fly, or become invisible? Ever wanted to sprinkle fairy dust on the ground and watch wonderful trees and flowers sprout up that you could actually eat? Mmmm, I’m thinking pink marshmallow trees, sticky lemon daffodils and chocolate-flavoured berries!

Remember Robin Williams’ dilemma in Hook? (If you haven’t ever seen the film, add it to your list.) He landed back in Neverland as Peter Pan (after many years away) but couldn’t fly, and couldn’t even see the wonderful food that the boys feasted on daily, let alone taste it. Why? Because he’d stopped believing. Stopped imagining. Stopped having fun. Eventually though, he began to believe again, and suddenly everything came to life! He could fly and zoom around with Tinkerbell, eat cream cakes and chicken legs that he’d never known were there. He rolled, and dived, and fought and had a pretty amazing time. He had fun.

Isn’t that reason enough for allowing fantasy to be part of our lives? It’s fun!

What do you think?

Is fantasy a useful ingredient in childhood development?

What do your kids (and others in your family who are kids at heart) enjoy?

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