Reality Vs Fantasy: Encouraging Real Experiences During The Holiday Season

As the holiday season arrives, the world around us becomes increasingly immersed in a world of fantasy.  Halloween brings scary images to grocery stores, Thanksgiving brings talking and walking turkeys, and the Christmas holiday brings Santa Claus imagery in abundance.  Whether or not a family takes part in these holidays, the imagery is there in the world around us; it cannot be escaped completely.  Even beyond the season, fantastical imagery is everywhere in many children’s experiences: movies, books, stories from adults, etc.

Dr. Montessori spoke about fantasy quite frequently.  She was a champion of the imagination and creativity, and much of the freedom in the classroom is designed to support that development.  But, she was concerned that adults misunderstand how children develop imagination.  She found that a child’s ability to create and explore was best enhanced by realistic experiences in the world.  Only after the child understands what is real, can he imagine further possibilities.  She argued that giving children fantasy does not create imagination, but rather directs it according to the adult’s ideas.  It does not stem from the child’s creativity, but rather, the already existing cultural influence.

The child’s mind does not distinguish real from unreal as easily as the adult’s mind does.  This does not mean that, at the preschool age, children cannot do it, but rather that they are not always certain about which category (real or unreal) something falls into when first introduced (at the toddler age, however, the ability to make such a distinction is only just starting and not well developed at all).  If something unreal is treated real by adults, children have an even harder time making the appropriate conclusions and will most often go with what the adults says until they reach the second plane of development (around age 6) and begin to question things from a different perspective.  Many children realize early on that talking animals are unreal, if they have been exposed to a number of real animals to see that they don’t talk.  Without the exposure to the real, however, it is difficult to make this distinction.

How can we, as parents and educators, encourage children to make appropriate distinctions between what is real and what is not?  This notion is important when children’s minds become so inundated with fantastical imagery.  The simplest way is to limit our children’s exposure to the unreal until they have made real connections.  Another option is to make sure that unreal exposures are coupled by real exposures.  For example, if a child reads many books about talking animals, we can point out that the story is fun, but do animals really talk?  No, of course not.  We can say “that’s not real, that only happens in stories; what a silly story.”  We can follow up with what sound an animal really makes.  We can take our children to farms to see real animals and use the vocabulary of “real.”  We can encourage our children to make these distinctions.  The same can apply to holiday imagery, especially imagery that may be scary.  We can point out that things like ghosts, monsters, and the like, are costumes, decorations, or found only in stories.

It’s important at this age not to use language that makes something unreal seems real.  Using “it” rather than “he” or “she” for something that is not real can help children clarify the difference.  If we refer to a stuffed animal with a personal pronoun, it becomes far more confusing to the child.  How we discuss and talk about the real and unreal things around us helps inform our children and allows them to make the appropriate distinctions and then explore further.

There are many ways to encourage real experiences during the holiday season.  Children who participate in Halloween can dress up in costumes that reflect real things, like a fireman, policeman, a chef, a veterinarian, a doctor, or any kind of animal, as a few examples.  Fall can be celebrated by raking and playing in leaves, baking with pumpkins and apples, and exploring farms.  Families that celebrate Thanksgiving can encourage children to participate in cooking and preparing the food.  Children at this age can help cut food, stir, pour, help set the table, and decorate.  Presents for holidays like Christmas and Chanukah can be for real things: musical instruments, child size cooking utensils, arts and crafts projects/materials, puzzles, blocks/legos, to name just a few ideas.  For children who celebrate Christmas, discipline can continue the way it has during the rest of the year, rather than focus on how Santa or the Elf on the Shelf view behavior.

Encouraging real experiences during the first plane of development (ages 0-6) can really help a child develop a fundamental understanding of the world around them. Children enjoy participating in real life family experiences, such as cooking.  Children deeply enjoy imitating occupations and activities of adults, and most often, this is what informs their very important act of fantasy play. 

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