How do children decide what is real?

    • Topic: Cognitive Development

    • Location: Discovery Center

    Many children learn about people from books and stories--but how do they know if the character is real or fictional? This study looks at children’s developing understanding of the difference between pretend characters and historical figures.

    Children, aged 4-7 years, are shown pictures of fictional and historical characters. If the image is familiar, children are asked to decide if the character is real or imaginary. Children are also shown some unfamiliar characters, and are told a short story about each of them. We are interested in how children classify these unknown characters. Previous research indicates that younger children tend to believe everything in stories is make-believe, while older children differentiate between historical and fictional stories. We are interested in understanding the transition between these two stages.

    We predict that both age groups will be able to correctly classify the familiar historical figures as “real” and the familiar fictional figures as “imaginary.” We also anticipate that the older children will be able to differentiate between the unfamiliar historical and fictional characters, based on the language we use to introduce them (i.e.: ‘the fairy princess’ vs. ‘the British princess’). However, many younger children may believe that every character is fictional, regardless of the language used to introduce the character.

    This research may help us understand the clues children use to understand the past, and how even young children might learn about history, if given the proper context.

    Corriveau, K. H., Kim, A. L., Schwalen, C. E., & Harris, P. L. (2009). Abraham Lincoln and Harry Potter: Children’s differentiation between historical and fantasy characters. Cognition, 113(2), 213-225.

    This research was conducted by Kathleen Corriveau and Angie Kim, Ed.D. candidates at Harvard University.

        » Kathleen Corriveau

    Activities to Try in the Discovery Center

    Real or Alive?

    While visiting museums, children often have difficulty distinguishing between objects that are ‘alive’ versus those that are ‘real’, believing that if the object is no longer living, then it cannot be ‘real’. When children ask the question: “Is that real?,” they may mean: “Is that alive?”.

    To see how your child thinks about the real/alive distinction, check out the Discovery Center’s Animal Pelts. Can your child figure out what animals the pelts belong to? What kind of questions does your child ask about the pelts? Does your child think the pelts are “real”, although they are not “alive”?

    Activities to Try at Home

    King Arthur: Fact or Fiction?

    Find a storybook to read with your child that features a legendary character, such as King Arthur. Use the storybook to find clues about whether the character really did exist in the past.

    What parts of the story does your child think could happen in real life? Which aspects of the story seem more like a fairytale to your child? Does your child think King Arthur was a real person? What does your child base his/her decision on?

Research Spotlight

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