Developmental and individual differences in children's ability to distinguish reality from fantasy

Date of Completion

January 1994


Psychology, Developmental




The present study focuses on children's developing ability to categorize real and pretend events, their understanding regarding the permanence of the state of pretense, and the potential effects that emotional tones have on these abilities. Children's involvement in imagination was also assessed as a possible factor contributing to individual differences in reality/fantasy understanding. Sixty male and female children selected from university preschool and kindergarten classes judged happy, neutral and frightening pictures selected from children's books according to whether they believed that the event could happen in real life. Mental age was statistically controlled in the analyses using scores on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-Revised (1981). Imaginative involvement was measured using the Imaginative Play Predisposition Interview (Singer, 1973) and self directed pretend tasks (Overton and Jackson, 1973).^ Findings show that kindergartners perform significantly better than preschoolers in distinguishing real from pretend events. These group differences seemed to stem from preschooler's tendency to overattribute pretense when considering pictured events (e.g. preschoolers often judged that a man talking on the phone was only pretend). Overall, children made significantly fewer correct distinctions between reality and fantasy for the frightening pictures than for both the happy and neutral pictures.^ Individual difference analyses between children judged to be differentially involved in fantasy did not reveal any differences in their ability to distinguish between real and pretend events. Children's judgments regarding the permanence of the state of pretense revealed that children in both preschool and kindergarten often believe that pretend events can be made real by imagining. The group of high fantasizers as measured by the Imaginative Play Predisposition Interview were found to believe in the possibility of fantasy events becoming real by pretending more often than the low fantasizing group. Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed. ^