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Are Children's Imaginations Really That Imaginative?

A young girl sitting in a cozy room, looking thoughtful with a dreamy expression. Above her head are thought bubbles showing fantastical space adventures, including flying through a galaxy, meeting friendly aliens, and exploring colorful planets. The background features space-themed posters, a telescope, and books about space, creating an imaginative and inspiring atmosphere.
Children's Imaginations

Imagination is often celebrated as a boundless and vibrant aspect of childhood, with the belief that children are naturally drawn to fantastical and imaginative worlds. However, recent research by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and David M. Sobel challenges this notion, suggesting that children might not be as inclined towards imaginative fiction as commonly thought. This blog explores their findings and what they mean for our understanding of children's imaginative processes.

The Common Belief

Traditionally, it's believed that children love stories filled with magic, talking animals, and far-off lands. This belief is supported by the popularity of fairy tales and fantasy books among young readers. The idea is that children’s imaginations thrive on these fantastical elements, fostering creativity and cognitive development.

Weisberg and Sobel's research paints a different picture. Their work indicates that children often prefer realistic stories over fantastical ones. Here are some key points from their findings:

Preference for Realism:

Despite the common belief, children show a significant preference for stories and events that are more realistic. They are drawn to scenarios that closely mirror their own experiences and the real world around them.

Imagination and Reality:

The study suggests that an attraction to unrealistic fiction might actually undermine the role of imagination in helping children understand reality. Imagination is not just about conjuring fantastical worlds but also about making sense of real-world possibilities and scenarios.

Counterfactual Reasoning:

Imagination is closely tied to counterfactual reasoning – the ability to think about what could have happened under different circumstances. This cognitive skill is crucial for learning and problem-solving. If children were overly drawn to unrealistic fiction, it might hinder their ability to apply imagination to real-world situations.

Why Do Children Prefer Realism?

There are several reasons why children might favor realistic stories:

Relatability: Realistic stories often feature scenarios and characters that children can relate to directly. This relatability can make the story more engaging and meaningful to them.

Learning Tool: Stories that depict real-life situations can serve as valuable learning tools. They help children navigate their own lives by providing examples of problem-solving, social interactions, and everyday challenges.

Understanding the World: Through realistic stories, children can better understand the world around them. These stories provide a framework for how things work and how people behave, which is essential for their cognitive and social development.

Implications for Parents and Educators

Understanding that children might prefer realistic stories can help parents and educators

choose more effective reading materials and activities:

Balanced Reading Choices:

While it’s still beneficial to include some fantastical stories for the sake of variety and fun, incorporating more realistic stories might better capture children's interests and support their learning.

Encouraging Real-World Play:

Encourage play that mirrors real-life situations. Role-playing games that involve everyday scenarios, such as playing house or grocery shopping, can be both enjoyable and educational.

Discussion and Reflection:

After reading a story, engage children in discussions about what happened and how it relates to real life. Ask them questions that encourage them to think about the characters' decisions and how they might have acted differently.

Creative Realism:

Foster creativity within realistic contexts. Encourage children to come up with their own stories that might be set in their neighborhood or involve people they know, blending creativity with familiarity.

The research by Weisberg and Sobel invites us to rethink our assumptions about children's imaginations. While fantasy and magic have their place, children’s preference for realism highlights the importance of grounding imaginative processes in the real world. By providing children with stories and experiences that balance fantasy and reality, we can support their cognitive development and help them better understand the world around them.


Weisberg, D. S., & Sobel, D. M. (2022). Imaginative processes in children are not particularly imaginative. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. doi:10.1017/S0140525X21002089


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