Kids might live in a fantasy world, but when it comes to their taste in reading material, a recent study suggests that young children prefer their books to be based in reality.
In a study from earlier this year, NPR reported, psychologists compared four-to-seven-year-old children and adults’ preference for stories rooted in fact and fiction. They asked each group to choose which of two books seemed like a better story, based on single-sentence synopses. In each case, researchers characterized one book as “true” and the other as “make-believe.” Children, it turned out, were more likely to pick factual stories, while adults split 50/50 on fact versus fiction.
NPR also mentioned a related study in which the same psychologists asked participants to choose between a fantasy-based story (e.g., “a boy who lives on an invisible farm”) and a more realistic version of it (“a boy with lots of brothers and sisters”). As in the first study, fantasy proved better bait for adults. Kids showed an equal preference for fact and fantasy, whereas adults favored the surreal.
Study authors offered an explanation for what they deemed potentially counterintuitive results, as the NPR story said:
“Children are still learning about the real world. What's routine for us might be novel for them. In fact, we know that children (and adults) can learn from fictional stories, but children more readily apply what they've learned when the story is realistic as opposed to fantastical. Fiction and fantasy might be luxuries we can afford only after we've mastered the basics.”
As someone who, as a seven-year-old, strongly preferred stories about the holocaust and could give or take Disney, I'm not surprised that kids prefer reality and adults dig something that distracts them from the day to day. Would Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or even Harry Potter have seen such tremendous success, on paper or on screen, without legions of fans outside the targeted age range?
Fantasy provides escapism, traditionally something that world-weary adults need more than kids do. Also, age-ripened readers, who’ve already marveled or gasped at pirates, medieval chamber-pots and the Tuskegee Experiment, have a higher standard for “unbelievable.”
We think of kids as imaginative little weirdos, and they are. But imagination is a function of the world as you know it. Creative thinking need not exceed the bounds of metaphysical reality; it merely needs to subvert familiar or expected scenarios and ideas.
Remember, kids go apeshit for Santa, to some degree, because they believe he’s real. If you thought a clinically obese baby-boomer wiggled down every chimney in your exurban cul-de-sac to bestow bags of crap on anonymous children, would you feel the need to get lost in vampire lust?