Is it wise to expose kids to works of fantasy? Should we let them engage in fantasy play, pretending to be characters so different from us and our everyday life? Are children easily confused by what is fantasy and what is real? The extent of fantasy in children's lives can be of some concern to parents, who worry that their kids will grow up confused about what is real and what is not.
At the heart of fantasy is the question 'What if?' And if you watch young kids play, you'll see that this is a question they respond to from the very start.
Through such play, kids explore all types of experiences, and work at building a more complete self-concept. The experimenting that it allows gives them a better sense of who they are.
What can a child gain from pretending to be a brave warrior, an adored princess, or a rabbit? Fantasy in play expands consciousness, no longer limiting children to what is real, but allowing them to imagine what is possible and what is impossible. It gives them the opportunity to determine the extent of their potential and their limitations, so that they can eventually face and cope with the real world successfully.
When children engage in fantasy, they become completely immersed in the characters belonging to that fantasy world. They imagine just how those other individuals might feel. The more advanced and sophisticated the role-playing, the more children are aware of the needs of others, and the reasons that they might behave the way that they do.
Fantasy and reality are often interwoven in play. In fact, to the very young child, play isn't just like life, it is life. But by the age of seven or eight, children can usually distinguish what is real from what is pretend.
Pretend gestures start when kids are around 12 months old. At this stage, pretence is just an imitation of what they have seen or heard. For instance, they might pretend to feed themselves, and soon they will include a toy, treating it as if it were acting of its own accord.
Gradually the fantasy becomes more complex. The little bits of pretend that children play out until they are about four or five years old begin to fall into meaningful patterns. Instead of being disjointed they are put together logically to form a fantasy story that might last for hours, or be carried over from one day to the next.
Here is an example:
A couple of four year olds come across a nylon net shopping bag and agree that it makes a good fishing net. The following day, when they see the bag, they are reminded of their fishing game and decide to extend the game to include a boat. A cardboard box fits the bill and a couple of mixing spoons become the oars.
What these children have done is to conceptualise possibilities in a logical sequence. Sounds impressive, doesn't it! Such is the value of fantasy play.
A certain writer of fantasy stories has said that, when she tells people what she does, many people declare that they used to read that stuff once, before they discovered real literature. But like so many writers of fantasy, she strongly refutes claims that this form of fiction is escapist or trivial.
Imagined worlds and imagined societies–such writers tell us–allow us to question our own way of doing things, and to consider more critically our approach to life.
Think about it. Imaginative fiction–by presenting alternative cultures to the ones we know so well–stimulate us into looking past the usual conditioning that can limit us in the way we live our lives.
Fantasy in stories presents us with symbols and metaphors and archetypes in a way that speaks to us, on an unconscious level, about our hopes and fears, our dreams and terrors.
Reading such stories to our kids can have untold benefits. Jack's parents told me this story: when he was five, he insisted that his bedroom light stay on through the night. There were monsters in the garden, he said, that were trying to get into the house at night.
His parents didn't tell him he was being silly. They realised it was all real to him. So they found a book about a boy who triumphs over a dragon, and Jack was very pleased to hear about the dragon being captured. Then the story told about how the dragon was a kind old thing who was terrified, and did his best to scare people away because of his own fears. "Since we've been reading the story to him," his parents said, "Jack is feeling very differently about the monsters in the garden."
Angela Rossmanith. Angela is a mother, freelance writer and educator. She is the author of several books, including When Will the Children Play? Finding Time for Childhood.