Stories are a central way that we pass information to people. The beauty of stories is that they embed real cultural wisdom in a specific context. They are easy to remember. They capture people’s attention. For all of these reasons, we often use stories to help people learn new strategies for dealing with life.
When we tell stories to young children, though, we often make them even more interesting by introducing fantasy elements. Aesop’s fables were about animals rather than people. Picture books are filled with stories of fairies, witches, unicorns, and princesses from faraway lands.
There are lots of goals for telling stories to children, but there is often at least some attempt to teach kids something about life. When we hope to educate, does it matter whether the stories are about the real world or about fantasy?
This question was explored in a series of studies published in 2009 in the Journal of Cognition and Development by Alison Shawber, Ruth Hoffman, and Marjorie Taylor. In these studies, children were told stories about people or fantasy characters who had to solve a problem. For example, a character might carry a number of apples by wrapping them up in a blanket. Later, the children would be exposed to a problem like having to carry a lot of marbles. They were given many objects to solve this problem including a towel. The correct answer was to wrap the marbles up in the towel, just as the character in the story wrapped up the apples.
In one study, younger children (about 4-years old) and older children (about 5-years old) were told one story about a real child and a second story about a fairy that solved a different problem. The solutions associated with the real child and the fairy were varied across children, so that the influence of the character was not related to the specific solution presented in the story.
After hearing the stories, children were given a chance to solve a problem similar to the one described in the story. If they could not solve it on their own, they were given a hint to use the story. At the end of the experiment, the children were asked which story they would like to hear again as a measure of whether they preferred the story about the child or the story about the fairy.
Overall, children were more likely to solve the problem when it was told about a real child than when it was told about a fantasy character. About 75% of the children in the study solved the problem with or without a hint when it was about a real child, but only about 50% solved it with or without a hint when it was about a fairy.
Another interesting result was that the younger children who preferred the story about the fairy to the story about the child had much more difficulty solving the problem than the older children who preferred the story about the fairy. So, there seems to be a trend where children gradually learn to extract the solution from fantasy setting.
Putting all of this together, it suggests that young children find may find fantasy characters interesting, but they have a hard time learning the point of the story when it is embedded in a fantasy situation. They find it easier to understand the point of the story when it is about real people. The older children who liked fantasy stories tended to get better at solving the problem, but even they were much worse overall than the ones who heard the story about the real child.
This work suggests that when stories are being told to teach children rather than just to entertain them, it might be best to focus those stories on realistic settings rather than fantastic ones.