by Kathy Eugster, MA
Recent research has indicated that when children engage in pretend or imaginary play, the outcome is improved cognitive, social, and emotional development. Fantastical, or fantasy, play is often used interchangeably in the literature with pretend or imaginary play. Please see my other articles on imaginary play: Wait! Imaginary Play for Only 10 Minutes and Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? De-mystifying Imaginary Play.
What is fantastical, or fantasy, play?
Let’s look at a few definitions of “fantastical” to start with:
- strange and wonderful
- highly or completely unrealistic or impractical
- imaginary, made-up, make-believe
- incredible, preposterous, absurd, nonsensical
Children will enjoy engaging in pretend or imaginary play and will play in various ways. Pretend play can involve play activities that vary across a wide spectrum of reality from real to non-real or fantastical. Some children prefer to engage in pretend play that is more representational and involves more realistic or everyday experiences, like pretending to be a teacher or doctor or having a tea party. Some children prefer more fantastical play and engage in fantastical thinking, resulting in pretend play that involves unrealistic or impossible experiences, for example pretending to be a superhero or unicorn or casting a magic spell.
Some children are more fantasy-oriented in their play, and others are more reality-oriented, and this seems to be a stable individual difference throughout childhood. In one recent study, researchers looked at differentiating children’s fantasy play according to the extent to which it is truly fantastical (i.e., violates known physical principles) by developing a four-point fantasy orientation scale. (Fantasy orientation and creativity in childhood: A closer look. Louise Bunce & Jacqueline Woolley. Cognitive Development Volume 57, January–March 2021, 100979)
Here is the fantasy orientation scale they developed:
- 0 = reality oriented: (e.g. playing basketball, building something according to directions)
- 1 = possible fantasy: pretend play that conforms to laws of reality; representational pretend play (e.g. having a pretend tea party; pretending to go to the doctor; playing school)
- 2 = improbable fantasy: pretend play that is theoretically possible but very improbable; (e.g. pretending an alligator is hiding under the bed; pretending to be an astronaut)
- 3 = impossible fantasy: pretend play where the normal restrictions imposed by reality do not apply (e.g. pretending to be a unicorn, pretending to be a wizard, being invisible)
The researchers were studying whether creativity was related to fantasy orientation and concluded that more research needs to be done in this area. However, I think it is very interesting to see how children’s fantasy play can be differentiated.
Is Fantasy Play Beneficial?
Some parents may worry that fantasy stories or play could confuse young children. Other parents may discount fantasy play as silly or not having any serous purpose or value. So, should children stay away from fantasy play? Recent research suggests “no.” Engaging with fantasy can stimulate imagination, improve vocabulary, and may help develop better executive functioning and self-regulation skills. Although preschoolers do make some errors in judgement about what is real and make-believe, and it may be difficult at times for parents to differentiate between made-up stories and events that really happen, preschoolers are generally not easily confused and can understand that fantasy scenarios can’t happen in real life.
Researchers believe that fantasy-oriented play helps children because fantasy play allows children to engage in complex tasks and thinking that are unlike those they encounter in real-life everyday experiences. Children will engage in fantastical play to experiment with and explore their world. Through fantastical play, children will express desires, wishes, hopes, and dreams. They can structure a perfect ending to a story. Children also experiment with different ideas, perspectives, and feelings in fantastical play. They may play in different roles to see how these roles feel. They may play out scary situations, learning about feelings of anxiety and fear, because they feel safe in the play environment, which ultimately helps them to develop emotional control and mastery.
7 Tips for Encouraging Fantasy Play
Tip #1: Unstructured Play. Allow your child enough time to engage in free or unstructured play either by herself, with other children, or with you. The good news is that, as a parent, you can get involved with your child to support her imaginative and pretend play. Although children can play imaginatively and creatively on their own or with other children, they generally love it when their parents are interested and can provide focused attention during play.
Tip #2: Open-ended Toys and Materials. Provide a space and toys, props, and materials that encourage imaginative and fantasy play. These items can be very simple toys or everyday items. Please make sure they are safe and age appropriate. Add different items on a regular basis to create interest. Toys and objects that encourage imagination are often “open-ended” which means they can be used in many different ways, are simple, and do not require specific directions to use.
Tip #3: Child-Directed Play. Let your child lead and direct the play. In child-directed play, you put yourself in a nondirective role and allow your child to make choices and decisions on what to do and how to do things and you follow your child’s directions (as long as the choices are safe and non-destructive). In order to stimulate your child’s imagination, you can encourage your child to make or do things their own way instead of according to specific instructions. Please see the following articles for more information on child-directed play: 6 Key Concepts for Child-Directed Play and Make the Most of 15 Minutes With Your Child.
Tip #4: Parent-Directed Play. If your child is having trouble initiating and maintaining imaginary play, you may choose to take on a more directive role in playtime with your child by using parent-directed play to prompt or encourage imaginary and creative play in your child. For example, you could suggest having a birthday party or setting up a store for stuffed animals, setting up a space station on a distant planet for the astronauts, or taking the unicorns on an adventure to a new land. Another parent-directed strategy is to add something to the play story to make it more fun or interesting, for example adding characters or changing the plot. Ideally, after using parent-directed play strategies, your child will naturally start to engage in the play and begin to use his imagination to develop an imaginary story. It is at this point that you would switch your role from directive to nondirective, or in other words you would switch from parent-directed play to child-directed play. Please see the following article for some information about parent-directed play: Parent-Directed Playtime: Different Than Child-Directed Playtime But Just as Important.
Tip #5: Photos and Videos. Take a photo or make a video of your child’s imaginary play scenario. Children usually love it when you take a photo of what they have set up with toys or video them in their imaginary role.
Tip #6: Fantasy Stories. When you choose children’s stories and books to read to them that are rich in fantasy, you will help your child learn about other worlds, people, and situations, even if they are fantastical. This is a good thing!
Tip #7: Electronic Media. Monitor and limit exposure to television, videos, and other electronic devices and make sure what they are viewing is age-appropriate. If they spend too much time passively watching electronic media, children may use their imaginations less and merely imitate or act out in real life what they view on electronic media without understanding the real-life consequences.
Give the above tips a try and see how they work for you. You may have more ideas on how to encourage fantasy imaginary play. Keep track of what works best for you and your child.