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How, When, and What Do Young Children Learn from Fictional Stories?

A young child dressed as a superhero, striking a heroic pose in a bedroom filled with superhero posters and toys. The child is wearing a red and blue costume with a mask, standing confidently. The room includes a bed, bookshelf, and colorful decorations, creating an imaginative and inspiring atmosphere.
Children Learning from Fictional Stories

Fictional stories are a staple of early childhood, not just for entertainment but also as a tool for education. Stories are often designed to teach children new vocabulary, problem-solving skills, and other critical pieces of information. However, the way children learn from these stories can vary widely based on several factors. Research by Deena Skolnick Weisberg and Rebekah A. Richert delves into the intricacies of how, when, and what young children learn from fictional stories. This blog explores their findings and discusses how different elements in stories can impact a child's learning process.

The Educational Value of Fictional Stories

Fictional stories are a powerful medium for teaching children because they can present information in a compelling and memorable way. Past studies have shown that children can indeed learn real-world information from fictional sources. This includes learning new vocabulary words, understanding social norms, and developing problem-solving skills. However, the effectiveness of these stories in imparting knowledge can depend on several variables.

Fantastical Elements:

Many children’s stories contain fantastical elements, such as talking animals or magical adventures. These elements can make stories more engaging and enjoyable for children. Interestingly, research suggests that fantasy can sometimes enhance learning. For example, when fantastical elements capture a child's attention and imagination, they may become more engaged and therefore more likely to absorb the educational content embedded in the story.

Prior Knowledge:

A child’s prior knowledge plays a significant role in how they learn from stories. If the new information presented in a story builds on what the child already knows, they are more likely to understand and remember it. Therefore, stories that connect new concepts to familiar ideas can be particularly effective educational tools.

Integration of Educational Information:

How educational content is integrated into a story affects learning outcomes. Information that is seamlessly woven into the narrative is often easier for children to absorb. For instance, a story that naturally incorporates new vocabulary words into the dialogue and actions of characters is likely to be more effective than one that presents these words in isolation.

Types of Learning from Stories

It's important to distinguish between different types of educational content and how stories convey this information.

New Facts:

Stories can introduce children to new facts and knowledge about the world. For example, a story about a trip to the zoo can teach children about different animals, their habitats, and behaviors.

Executive Function Strategies:

Fictional stories can also teach executive function strategies, such as problem-solving, planning, and self-regulation. Stories that involve characters overcoming challenges or making decisions can help children learn these important skills.

Practical Implications for Parents and Educators

Understanding the factors that influence learning from fictional stories can help parents and educators make more informed choices about the stories they share with children.

Select Engaging Stories:

Choose stories that are engaging and captivate children's imagination. Fantastical elements can be beneficial, but they should not overshadow the educational content.

Build on Prior Knowledge:

Introduce stories that connect new information to what children already know. This can make the learning process smoother and more effective.

Integrate Learning Seamlessly:

Look for stories where educational content is integrated naturally into the narrative. This helps children absorb and retain new information more effectively.

Diverse Learning Goals:

Use a variety of stories to address different learning goals. Some stories can focus on teaching facts, while others can help develop problem-solving skills and other executive functions.

Fictional stories are a valuable educational tool for young children. By understanding how different elements of stories impact learning, parents and educators can better utilize this resource to support children's cognitive and social development. Engaging, well-integrated stories that build on children's prior knowledge can effectively teach new concepts and skills, making storytelling a powerful component of early childhood education.


Weisberg, D. S., & Richert, R. A. (2022). How, when, and what do young children learn from fictional stories? Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 105445. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2022.105445


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