Volume VI - 2001

On the Educational Uses of Fantasy
by Geoffrey Madoc-Jones and Kieran Egan

     Geoff Madoc-Jones was brought up in Wales, where he completed his initial degree at the University of Wales. He went to Canada in 1970, lived in a remote area, taught Language Arts, first in schools and then at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. He recently completed his Ph.D. in hermeneutics and literary education.
     Kieran Egan was born in Ireland, educated in England, and did his Ph.D. in education at Cornell University. A recent book that gives the best introduction to his work is The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding (University of Chicago Press, 1997).


     For more than a century, teachers of young children have been told that they should begin instruction in any area with content that is already familiar to the child. From Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in particular, and repeated by so many other influential educators and psychologists, such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget, we have been told that children's understanding begins with the concrete, the local, the empirical, the simple and moves over the years in the direction of the abstract, the distant, the rational, and the complex. If this is true, how do we account for the prominence of fantasy in young children's minds? It is neither concrete, local, empirical, nor simple-and it certainly isn't made up of material familiar in the child's everyday environment.

      If we tell a story that involves characters moving from one place to another, what difference does it make to have them travel by bus or by magic carpet? Is the latter mode of transport a lie that at best creates false hopes and feeds an illusory longing for an unattainable world, or is it a liberation of the mind, a stimulus to the imagination, that enables us to think about our real world more effectively? Is the concrete, local, empirical bus more accessible than the magic carpet? We would like, in the following pages, to reflect a little on the source of fantasy, and then explore briefly some classroom implications of what we find. So we need first to have some sense of what fantasy is. Where does it come from, and why is it so prominently a part of young children's mental lives?

The Source of Fantasy

      Some people believe that children's belief in fantasy is a result of the kinds of stories they are told when they don't understand the limits of reality. Certainly adults very commonly encourage belief in odd creatures like Santa Clause or the tooth fairy, and even discourage children's developing skepticism about these shadowy figures. (How DOES a single fat man manage to get down the chimneys of ALL the houses in the world in the one night?) And what tortures must the budding skeptical child face dealing with the adult assertion that children who don't believe in Santa Clause won't get any presents?

      Surveys suggest that as many as 60% of children have quite complexly realized "imaginary friends," and nearly all children engage in pretend play of one kind or another. Adults have tended to look on this as evidence that children confuse reality and fantasy in ways that adults don't. The child's wish for some magical occurrence, like a magic carpet or the disappearance of that horrible new baby, is seen as different in kind from the adult who kneels in prayer for similar interruptions of the course of nature. The percentage of children who believe in tooth fairies is fairly close to that of adults who believe that aliens have visited the earth. Around 60% of the adult population of the U.S.A. believes strongly or somewhat in the influence of astrology; around 50% believe that walking under a ladder will lead to something bad happening later; about 50% believe in demonic possession. And large numbers accept the claims of a few magicians who seem able to use their powers over nature only to bend perfectly harmless forks, and, less magically, to increase their bank balances. As Carl Johnson has put it: "The problem...is that whereas adults are readily aware of myths they have outgrown, they are blind to ones that they currently hold to be real" (1997, p. 1024.) Also, it is now clear, as it wasn't even a few decades ago, that children by age three do not confuse their imaginary worlds with reality; they recognize differences between the rules of their magical worlds and the everyday routines they have to slog through (cf. Woolley, 1997).

      Now this is not to say that children's fantasy is nothing other than typical adult thinking, with just a different set of delusions prominent. We would worry about the C.E.O. of a large corporation we had invested in who routinely turned running the company over to his imaginary bear-friend (unless the bear improved profits). But we don't worry about children's imaginary play. We know that by age 8 or 10 nearly all children will have given up their belief in magic, will have passed through a wall behind which the imaginary friends of childhood will languish, ignored and forgotten. We might wisely reconsider this large-scale desertion of childhood fantasy; Peter Pan's shock at finding that his earlier companions had forgotten how to fly is so evocative because it captures not simply regret for carefree childhood time. It also captures an insight that most people are sacrificing some cognitive powers that are strong in childhood, are evident in fantasy, and which need not be given up in entering the "real world" of adulthood. J. M. Barrie's fable of Peter Pan delivers a powerful message. He tells us that an adult life that has failed to preserve the imaginative vitality of childhood is a kind of living death, as is an endless childhood that never reaches maturity. Both are disasters and wastes of life, but the unnecessary giving up of a fluent imagination is perhaps our greater shame today.

Self-Generating Fantasy

      That fantasy is not merely a result of adult's telling such stories to children is suggested clearly by the fact that fantasy is a cultural universal: it is energetically active in all cultures, and it seems irrepressible. Consider one attempt to dispense with fantasy described by K. Chukovsky in his fascinating book From Two to Five (1963). Chukovsky describes how the dogma of social realism was applied to the instruction of some children during the early decades of the Soviet Union. He illustrates one effect through a diary kept by E. I. Stanchinskaia, a scientist and mother, of the development of her son to age seven. She wrote,that it was her purpose "to replace the unrealistic folk tales and fantasies with simple realistic stories taken from the world of reality and from nature." She strictly ensured that her son learned about nothing except what could be empirically verified. And the result? Well, as she reports faithfully in her diary, her son generated his own fantasies from morning to night-he declared that a red elephant came to live in his room, that he had an imaginary friend, that his mother must be careful not to sit on that chair because she ought to be able to see the bear sitting there, that the rug he sat on was a ship, that he was a reindeer when it snowed, that he had just bought his mother a baby tiger, and so on and on. He behaved as one might expect any imaginative child to behave, generating a fantasy world even though no hint of fantasy had been allowed to infect him.

      Children themselves support the claim that fantasy has a special attraction for them. When asked what kinds of stories they like best, typical groups of first-graders name a wide variety of stories. But the top preferences, recorded in a wide survey of some years ago, were for "an animal who could talk," "a prince and a princess," and "a magic ring." Least favorite were real-life stories about "what an astronaut does," "a person on T.V.," and "building a bridge" (Favat, 1977).

A Product of the Languaged Mind

We would like to propose that fantasy just comes along with language. That is, fantasy is primarily a product of the languaged mind, and so we might look at early language development for clues as to where fantasy originates. Consider how young children begin to gain a languaged grasp over the world. The toddler is sitting in a high-chair and touches a cup of milk directly from the refrigerator. Fingers are withdrawn with a frown. "Cold," says the mother. Attracted by an open fire, the toddler walks towards it until the father puts out a protective arm. "Hot," says the father. Children first notice, necessarily, temperatures that are hotter and colder than their bodies, and typically begin their languaged grasp over temperature with words like "hot" and "cold." The child can then learn a word like "warm"-that comfortable temperature about the same as the body's own. Putting a cautious toe or finger towards the bath water, the child can announce "hot!" if it is too hot or "cold!" if it is too cold, and the parent can encourage the child with assurances that it is just beautifully "warm." Further temperature terms, such as "cool' or "pretty hot" can be learned to fit along the continuum from hot to cold.

      This way of learning to grasp the world in language and concepts is clearly very common. Young children first learn opposites based on their bodies-"hot" is hotter than the body, "cold" is colder; "big" is bigger than their body, "small" is smaller; "hard" is harder than the body, "soft" is softer; and so on. Young children learn a great deal about the world using this procedure-wet/dry, rough/smooth, fast/slow, and so on. Once they have formed an opposition, they can learn other terms along the continuum between such opposites.

The Generating of Fantasy

      While they are very young, most children learn that some things are alive, like us and the cat and birds, and other things are dead. Perhaps it might be the death of a pet, or a dead bird brought into the house by a cat, or perhaps the idea of death might be learned through a story or by the experience of their own or a friends' grandparent or great-grandparent dying. Most of us learned the opposition life/death long before we can remember. What do you get when you apply to those opposites the same procedure that has been so successful in gaining a conceptual grasp over the physical world? What fits between "life" and "death," as "warm" fits between "hot" and "cold"? Well, ghosts, for example. Ghosts are to life and death as warm is to hot and cold. A ghost is a mediation between life and death; ghosts are in some sense alive and in some sense dead.

      When children are three or four years old, they might tell their cat or pet rabbit all their secrets. But the animal will not tell them its secrets back. Or, at least, it will not tell them in the language the child uses. Some cultures would put this differently, of course. Some cultures do claim that animals communicate with humans. But all cultures recognize a fundamental distinction between human and animal. Human/animal, like life/death, are opposites that do not have a mediating category; they are not ends of a continuum, but discrete concepts. So what do we get if we try to mediate between them, if we treat them as though they are not discrete and are ends of a continuum? Well, we get creatures like mermaids, Yetis, Big Foot-those half-human, half-animal creatures that are so familiar to the Western imagination and that are common in the mythologies of all oral cultures.

Nature and Culture

      A two-year-old may stub a toe against a chair and, in pain, hit the chair, only to be in more pain. It becomes clear very early that chairs don't have intentions or feelings like the child's. If we take a toddler for a stroll in the woods, the child comes to recognize that a tree that has fallen over and has saplings growing out of it is a natural object. But the tree that has had a bench carved into it so that weary toddlers and their grandparents can sit and rest for a few minutes has been culturally transformed. Before we can remember, we distinguish at a profound level between nature and culture. Typical three-year-olds will not use terms like "nature" and "culture," of course, but "made" or "real" or some other terms will reflect their recognition of the distinction. So what do you get when you mediate between this further discrete opposition, nature/culture? Well, for one thing, you get Peter Rabbit. That is, you get all those talking, dressed, middle-class animals of children's fantasy stories-natural animals mixed with the archetypal cultural capacity of language-use. Peter Rabbit is to nature and culture as a ghost is to life and death or warm is to hot and cold.

      If we listen to toddlers' stunningly rapid language development-from eighteen months to adolescence, the average child learns a new word every few waking hours-we may notice a common, powerful, and very successful procedure in use for elaborating a conceptual grasp over the world around them. Oppositions are created from continua of size, speed, temperature, texture, and also, of course, of morality-so we get good/bad, love/hate, fear/security, and so on. The world is inconvenient in facing us with such discrete categories as life/death, human/animal, nature/culture, and, in the modern world, human/machine. What one finds in the invented mediations between these categories are the stuff of all the fantasy stories and myths of the world, from zombies to werewolves to talking ravens, and from Frankenstein's monster to Mr. Data of Star Trek.

      Is that all there is to it? Fantasy is simply a product of misapplying one of the procedures by which we learn about the physical world? Well, it does have the virtues of simplicity and economy as an explanation. But obviously this is not all that needs to be said about fantasy, and no doubt the theories of Freud and Jung may help to elaborate other dimensions of it. The explanation given here, however, is certainly plausible and accounts for the common forms of fantasy in a surprising and convincing way. (We stole it in part from Claude Levi-Strauss [1966]).

      One implication of this explanation is that fantasy is inevitable, given the way language grapples with the complexity of the world. This explanation also supports those who claim that fantasy is not simply idle confusion. Fantasy may represent a kind of confusion, but it involves also a meditation on some of the basic questions that face us: Why and how are we unlike other animals? Why do we die, and what is death? Why and how does our culture separate us from the natural world? Fantasy, if our account is at all accurate, works by a complex use of metaphoric thinking, generating objects by seeing them as invented mediations between known categories. If we see fantasy in this way, what are the implications for teaching young children, and what role should fantasy play?

Fantasy in Early Childhood Education

      One important value for children in dreaming up fantasies, as in reading literature, lies in what fantasy can do in helping their development. Thus we might encourage fantasies which involve playful re-descriptions of the world and lead to asking questions about the child's self-understanding. Such questions typically project a world of new possibilities for the child to play with, to consider, to try out. It allows the child to play with as if worlds. In this sense, fantasies are fundamentally metaphoric and playful, for they allow the child to see something as if it were something else: my father as if he were a giant, the garden gate as if it were a faithful steed, or the box which the new fridge came in as if it were a space-ship. However, they also allow a more important form of imaginative fantasy, which entails the child not seeing something as if it were something else, but imagining herself as something or somebody else. It allows the being-as in addition to the seeing-as: I am not just seeing an image in my mind of the prince or the pauper or the flying carpet, I become them, all of them if the story requires it. I can inhabit their world and see through their eyes.

      These modes of seeing-as and being-as are of course intertwined. The metaphoric nature of language allows for the fantasy of being-as, which then becomes an image through the seeing-as. But the fantasy does not need to be merely visual, as the child can move, can act, and can speak as if she were the beings which she has imagined herself to have become. Furthermore, the fantasy can be part of play with others in which the fantasy is extended to include a whole world in which the participants can carry on a fantasy life.

Being Played by the Game

      The play aspect of fantasy is important because of its capacity for projected realness. It enables the child to step out of her subjectivity and to be governed by the rules of the game. In fact all games are part of such structured fantasies in which the rules of the game make the child act as a goalkeeper or a chess player and not as Bill or Mary. The important part about play is, therefore, not so much the pre-game subjectivity that the player brings into the game, but being played by the game. The child willingly submits to the rules and conventions of the game. Not to do so breaks the spell and makes one a "spoil sport". Children develop all sorts of fantasy play situations with highly complex structures to which they surrender their everyday selves in order to take on the possibilities of a world that they normally would not be able to experience.

The Child's Self-Understanding

      All of these aspects of fantasy, seeing-as, being-as and play are important for the child's emerging sense of self-understanding. They will happen without the intervention of the teacher, but they also provide a most important way in which the teacher can encourage the development of understanding in general. In terms of language arts teaching, they provide the necessary pre-conditions for the capacity to read, understand, and enjoy literature. Child-developed fantasies should be encouraged and gradually twinned with the reading of fantasy stories which have been written specially for children. They will easily recognize the element of "make-believe" in the fairy tales or in C.S. Lewis' stories, for example, and will be able to take part in them in a fuller manner. Later on in their school lives when they come to read more "serious" literature, this early experience with imaginative fantasy will enable them to "walk in the shoes" of the characters.

Narrative Identity and the Sense of the Self

      The second important element in imaginative fantasies is that they can enable children to see themselves as having a "narrative identity". This is important to educators who see that part of their task in the teaching of narratives, both fictional and historical, is to assist students' quests for personal identity, by assuring the continuity between their seemingly inchoate stories and an actual story for which they can assume responsibility. We tell stories because human lives make sense to us only in narrative terms (Maclntyre, 1990, p. 39). Humans are entangled in their untold stories to which narrative gives form and meaning. The pre-narrative capacity of human imagination exists and acts always and already in the world in a symbolically significant manner, because we are time-bound beings and the world and our lives become meaningful through a process of temporalization, our recollected pasts merge with our dreams of the future.

      Fantasy can thus play a number of important roles in the language arts classroom. First, it allows the child to posit possible worlds in which she can try out all sorts of modes of being-human, animal, or inanimate-as part of the journey of self discovery. Second, these fantasy worlds can be acted out through play in a social setting, so as to build common understanding with others. Third, the narrative element in fantasy enables the child to see her life as a story, one that began before her birth and which will go on as long as time lasts. Finally, the fantasy experience, when gradually melded with the reading of adult-authored fantasy tales, forms the foundation for the child to be able to play a full part in any future literary education. Conclusion

      Children's attraction to fantasy may be because they have not yet been taught to ignore its importance. The claim by many educators that children's understanding begins with the "here and now" implies that the "here and now" is a transparent world that can be easily understood just by looking at the objects in the world, a red wheel barrow glazed with rain, for example. But if reality is as simple as that, what is a poet such as William Carlos Williams going on about in his poem The Red Wheelbarrow or Vincent van Gogh in his painting Old Boots with Laces? The world is a lot more complex than the practical people would have us believe, and they are in danger of denying the ineffable by turning the mysterious into just another problem to be solved. The reality is that all-important understandings about self and the world can be glimpsed and grasped only tenuously.

      In getting students to work with fantasy, we are not merely providing an opportunity for them to have a release from cognitive cramming, but we may in fact be bringing them nearer to a valuable way in which humans have made sense of themselves and the world since antiquity. The word "fantasy" is derived from the Classical Greek word, "phantasia", which means "making visible". This was translated into Latin as "imaginatio", from which our modern word "imagination" is descended. Over the centuries, the two words have continued to be used, but for some reason, words derived from the original Greek term, phantasia, such as "fantasy", "fancy", or "phantasm", seem to have come to connote unreality and became less educationally respectable than the Latin- based "imagination" and its cognates.

      Giambattista Vico, an eighteenth century philosopher, gives us another hint when he notes that while in Latin the word "imaginatio" represented the faculty of the soul that is capable of forming images, the act of imagining itself was called "memorare" -to remember (Vico, 1982. p. 69). It seems that what we have are states of mind and activities-fantasy, imagination, and memory-which seem to be all connected. They are all part of the way in which we as humans interpret and make sense of the world in an active, creative manner through the mediation of language and other symbolic forms. The educational justification for using fantasy is becoming clearer; we neglect its promise at our students' peril.


Macintyre, A. (1984). After Virtue (Second Edition); Notre Dame, Indiana. University of Notre Dame Press. - (1990).

First Principles. Final Ends And Contemporary Philosophical Issues. The Aquinas Lecture 1990. Milwaaukee: Marquette University Press.

Vico, G. (1982) Vico: Selected Writings Edited And Transalated By L. Pompa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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