How children distinguish fantasy from reality

I’m so pleased to share with you an interview with Allán Laville, a doctoral researcher based at the University of Reading, who very kindly let me talk to him about his work. (And oh guys, his work is fascinating and bears a WORLD of relevance for how we look at children’s literature – particularly when thinking about how very young children read and interpret texts). I hope you enjoy the interview! I’m really keen to hear from you what you think about this so please feel free to comment / tweet / email me 🙂

Did you ever stop to think: Hi Allán! Could you briefly describe for us your research and what you’ve learnt from it?

AllánOur research is concerned with the investigation of how 3-8-year-old children distinguish between reality and fantasy. The current study looks at how children categorise make-believe characters into either real or make-believe. We were particularly interested in how children categorise heroes and villains and how these characters made the children feel. We found that 3-6-year-old children were much more likely to say heroes are real and villains are make-believe. We also asked the children, why did you say a character (e.g., Peter Pan) is real? We found that many of the 3-6-year-old children would say a hero character is real because they liked them and therefore we can infer, were happy for the character to exist. The opposite was found for Villians e.g., Captain Hook is made up because he is mean to people.

Did you ever stop to think: Your testing focuses on classifying characters from TV. I’m interested in the potential of this research if it were applied to something like a picture book or an app. Do you think you’d find similar results?

Allán: Very good question! There is other research investigating reality judgments of storybook characters however this has not yet looked into how emotions can influence children’s belief of storybook characters. I would suggest that we may well find similar findings with storybook characters!

Did you ever stop to thinkI was really interested in the notion of emotion being involved in the fantasy-reality judgement. Do you have any ideas how parents / teachers can support children and understand what they’re going through this stage of development?

Allán: Another good question! Firstly, I think it is important for parents and teachers to be aware of how emotions can influence children’s fantasy-reality judgments. Other research has found that 3-5-year-old children are much more likely to believe in positive make-believe events compared to negative make-believe events. This is interesting as it gives us insight into a young child’s mind i.e., only positive people and events can exist in the real world. In addition to these points, parents and teachers should be aware of how children use emotion to make decisions as well as their belief in new information. For example, recent research has shown that children are more likely to believe in information from a nice person (who is not an expert) compared to an expert who has nasty characteristics. Therefore, the information children believe in might be based on how they feel about the speaker (i.e., parent or teacher).

Did you ever stop to thinkYou’ve worked with children ranging from 3-8 years old, so from emergent literate through to literate. What were the main differences between the groups with their reactions to the images? Did you find out anything that surprised you?

Allán: When testing the older children in our study (7-8-year-old), we found that their justifications for whether a character is real or make-believe was based on their knowledge of reality as well as their knowledge of the character’s world of existence (e.g., Neverland). In the younger children, justifications were based on how the character made them feel as well as looser frames of reference. For example, one 4-year-old child commented that all characters were real as they watched them on TV at their Grandma’s house!

Did you ever stop to think:  And finally, what’s your favourite children’s book? 🙂

Allán: Ah! It would have to be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl!

Did you ever stop to think: Thank you Allán! I’ve found it fascinating to see just how different our perceptions of fantasy and reality are at a young age. I think it’s so relevant for teachers, authors and parents – anybody who’s interested in how children interpret things – to find out more about this area.   Thank you so much for your time! 

This study is part of Allán Laville's PhD programme supervised by Rachel McCloy and Fiona Knott
This study is part of Allán Laville’s PhD programme supervised by Rachel McCloy and Fiona Knott


16 thoughts on “How children distinguish fantasy from reality

  1. This is very interesting indeed. I wonder if children don’t believe villains are real as it’s a kind of coping mechanism? If they aren’t real they can’t harm, and heroes must be real because they can protect? Although I guess monsters under the bed slightly challenge that! 😉

    1. I think quite possibly! Heroes can be real as they do not cause harm but Villians can cause harm to others so cannot be real. It’s interesting as young children may perceive reality as being solely positive with fantasy containing negative events/people.

  2. Thanks for this – definitely interesting. And makes me think again abouth what Nicola Davies is saying on my blog today about the difference between fiction and non fiction, and whether kids know or care if it is technically one or the other.

    1. Oh, yes, definitely! It’s made me think a lot about authorial intent too – and if / how you can / could ‘control’ ‘ ‘lead’ a reading experience. Thanks for commenting! *runs off to read your interview with Nicola*

  3. I love this! Reminds me of playing 20 Questions with my family when small. I had picked Great Uncle Bulgaria and was asked if he was real – and naturally I said yes because Great Uncle Bulgaria IS real (as opposed to someone I just made up in my head). They went through all 20 Questions without guessing and were utterly unimpressed by my big Womble reveal. The stuff about bad characters being ‘less real’ is remarkable, though. Lots to ponder…

  4. This fits with my daughter (almost four). She thought ALL bad guys were make believe until we accidentally burst her bubble.

    She is adamant that dragons and fairies are real, no matter how often we discuss otherwise.

    1. Hello Megan,

      Thank you for sharing! Did your daughter say why all bad guys are make-believe? That is really interesting about dragons and fairies, does she say why she believes in them?


  5. That’s why you should never, ever, read fiction books to your kids. Kids need to be grown up in a world filled with real-life evidence and no entertainment is good for them. Because they will end up believing ridiculous things. I have a high pitched voice and it’s a real thing. Everyone else who has a high pitched voice actually FAKES it. I am the ONLY ONE in the world with it. And that’s why weeaboo weirdos obsess over me. And that’s why I hate them. I was born with Pulmonary Hypoplasia and that’s the reason why I have it. And yes, I hate kids.

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