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Kids Have More Nuanced Idea of Reality Than Once Thought

What’s the difference between “real” and “unreal” in a young child’s mind? Are dinosaurs more real than Santa Claus at the mall? And what about The Wiggles or aliens and ghosts?

In a new U.K. study, researchers at Keele University sought to better understand how children see various characters as real or unreal.

They found that young children understand that dinosaurs and The Wiggles (a musical group for kids) are real, and that fictional characters like Peter Pan and Spongebob are not real. But cultural characters such as Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy appear to occupy a more ambiguous place in a child’s mind.

The research, published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, is one of the first studies to look at how children evaluate different types of non-real people or figures relative to one another, as well as in comparison to real people.

“What we show is that children tend to have a nuanced understanding of reality, more so than many expect, and we show it across a ‘pantheon’ of figures who naturally vary in their degree of ‘reality’ and cultural support. We argue that rituals are a particularly potent signal for kids when it comes to accepting things like Santa Claus as real,” write the authors.

For the study, the researchers asked 176 Australian children (ages 2 to 11) to rate how real they considered thirteen different figures (ranging from real people like The Wiggles to more ambiguous figures like Santa Claus, ghosts, and dinosaurs, as well as fictional characters like Spongebob Squarepants and Princess Elsa, using a zero (not at all real) to eight (extremely real) point Likert scale.

The researchers hypothesized that the findings might reveal a hierarchy between real and unreal, with some unreal figures seen as more real by children depending on indirect evidence or cultural rituals at play, such as setting out milk and cookies for Santa that have “vanished” by Christmas morning. For comparison, they also assessed 56 adults.

The findings show that the majority of children conceptualized the 13 figures into four groups, based on score endorsements.

Ranked most highly as “real” were figures like dinosaurs and The Wiggles (with a score of 7 points); the next-highest score went to cultural figures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy (6 points), followed by ambiguous figures like aliens, dragons, and ghosts (4 points) and fictional characters like Peter Pan, Spongebob, and Elsa (4 points).

In comparison, adults and older children  (seven years and up) were more likely to group figures into three categories: real, not-real, and ambiguous (ghosts and aliens).

This study is limited, researchers said, in that there was no standard definition of “real” provided to the participants which may have had an impact in cases where children might have “met” figures in costume. For example, around 40 percent of the surveyed children said they’d seen Santa in real life, the same proportion who said they’d seen The Wiggles in real life. But the relatively high belief in cultural figures among younger children remains notable.

The team plans to do more research to better understand how ritual participation and other factors lead children to understand what is real (or not real) in their world, particularly when children might have no direct relevant experience.

Source: PLOS



Kids Have More Nuanced Idea of Reality Than Once Thought

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Kids Have More Nuanced Idea of Reality Than Once Thought. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 24 Jun 2020 (Originally: 24 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 24 Jun 2020
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