What authors helped shape western civilization? While that list could vary from person to person, everyone would include great writers such as Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Vergil. Certainly, their literary masterpieces tell tales that speak to timeless truths. However, an oft-neglected area of important study is the realm of fantasy, which often originates in ancient myths.
Interestingly, fantasy has its origins in great works and the old tales of centuries past. For example, the gods and goddesses of Greece play a role in the tales of Homer; Shakespeare has magical fairy worlds in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Beowulf there are dragons and hideous monsters that must be fought. In the more traditional sense, fantasy has made-up magical worlds and science fiction has made up worlds that are replete with futuristic science and technology or alien worlds.
Fantasy is more important than most realize. In fact, with the push for real-world scenarios today, children are being deprived of an opportunity that is essential to their executive functioning skills; namely, immersing themselves in a fantasy world and playing fantasy games. The fantasy stories and the games that follow from them lead to many important benefits: better executive function, better people skills and emotional awareness, improved working memory, a sense of wonder and creativity, and increased vocabulary.
Fantasy reading inspires fantasy play in young children, who learn by modeling. Countless studies have shown that children who have been exposed to fantasy and play fantasy games have better executive function. This is no surprise because good executive function requires the ability to switch back and forth between tasks. Students who practice switching back and forth between this world and their fantasy world will have experience in this area. In the words of Dr. Greer from the magazine Parenting Science, “You need to be good at task-switching, juggling information in working memory, and self-regulation.”
Fantasy reading inspires fantasy play in young children, who learn by modeling. Countless studies have shown that children who have been exposed to fantasy and play fantasy games have better executive function.
Several studies have also pointed out that fantasy play enhances a child’s understanding of other people’s emotions. Imagining alternate realities may be good practice for imagining what goes on in another individual’s head. It’s not surprising then that studies have shown students who had a strong orientation to fantasy had developed more sophisticated abilities to empathize with others. This is perhaps because these students have been able to consider the actions of the fantasy characters well, and put themselves in the place of those they are considering objectively. Also, fantasy play sessions will require the children to work together, not simply enforce rules. Little children need these opportunities to work together and think of others.
Fantasy brings the laws of nature and man into focus for children. The world that surrounds us is analyzed in a deeper way through fantasy. It is not surprising that children who love fantasy also have improved working memories. In studies done with 11-month-olds the children were separated into two groups: one group was exposed to normal situations, like a ball rolling down a slide, and the other to not-normal situations, like the ball appearing to go through a wall before it comes to the end of the slide. Babies were much more focused on the unusual. The babies were then shown that the ball was squeaky. Later the children were shown the squeaky ball and some new object. Those who had seen the unusual event of the ball rolling through a wall were more focused on the ball. It was clear there was a fixation on the nature of that object and an encouragement to deeper study and wonder.
In a study by Deena Skolnick-Weisberg described in Parenting Science, 150 students were divided into two groups. One group had daily 20-minute sessions of storytelling and pretend play in low-fantasy situations — think SpongeBob SquarePants. The other group had daily sessions with high-fantasy situations — think J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. After only eight days the researchers noticed that students in the high-fantasy group actually assimilated the new vocabulary and used it in their common speech.
So, make a point to expose your children to great fantasy literature and you will see an improvement in their memory, imagination, and vocabulary. These immediate benefits reap great long-term benefits too. There can be long-term benefits to daily life such as the ability to create, communicate, and make executive decisions; to academics through improved imagination; and to faith life through focus on the other.
Now there are a few caveats as to the books. First, children should immerse themselves in a beautiful fantasy world, one where actions have consequences and there are laws and rules for that world. There can be evil things in the world but good must win in the end, as it always does. The human mind has a desire for beauty; and beauty requires order, proportion, and clarity. These must be present in a fantasy world, for they are present in our world. A world that has this will offer the child a refuge from the hardships and difficulties of this world. To live for a few moments in a world where they can see or be a hero fighting dragons, or an adventurer in a strange world, can give them tools to cope with this world.
The second caveat in the true classical tradition is that the fantasy worlds should not be a world presented on TV, but a world from a book. Why? Students who hear stories told of great fantasy worlds create the images in their own mind. These images they make and hold strengthen their imagination. This could help with working memory in the future.
The third caveat is that children need time to play, reflect, and consider after being exposed to fantasy. In our busy world today, children don’t have time for boredom and thus they don’t have time for creation.
And finally, while the focus here has been on building habits with young children that will carry them through life, it’s never too late to start. Reading fantasy will also benefit older children. Allowing them to play board games and other games that encourage creativity, common goals, and world building will help them in the same way!
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