Young Kids May Know Fact From Fiction

Preschoolers Develop the Ability to Tell What's Pretend and What's Real

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on November 16, 2006

Nov. 16, 2006 -- Young children might be savvier than you think about telling truth from fiction.

Kids typically learn to tell what's real and what's pretend when they're 3-5 years old, new research shows.

Those findings come from researchers including Jacqueline Woolley, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Woolley and colleagues studied nearly 400 kids aged 3-6. The findings appear in Child Development.

"These studies provide new insight into the development of children's ability to make the fantasy-reality distinction," Woolley says in a news release.

"It is clear from the present studies that young children do not believe everything they hear," she says.

Telling Stories

First, the researchers read each child a story that was either imaginary or fact-based.

Imaginative stories included a tale about a princess and a dragon. Factual stories included information about dinosaurs.

Next, the researchers read the children a series of words.

Some words, such as "cat," described real things. Others, such as "dragon," described fantastical things. A third set of words, such as "surnit," were gibberish made up by the researchers.

The researchers asked the kids if the words described real or pretend items.

For Real?

As you might expect, the youngest kids were the most likely to think all the words were real, while the oldest kids were the savviest about telling truth from fiction.

But the study wasn't quite that simple.

Children who heard a factual story before the word test tended to say all of the words in the word test were about real objects.

Those who heard a fantasy story before the word test tended to be more skeptical about the words in the word test.

The difference may be all about context, the researchers note.

After hearing a factual story, the kids may have expected more facts, not a mix of facts and fantasy, in the word test.

But after hearing imaginative stories, the kids may have figured that the words in the word test were also from the land of imagination.

Some kids weighed the words carefully.

For instance, a 5-year-old responded, "I don't know. I've never seen one. This is a hard one," when asked about a made-up word.

Another child said, "If a scientist is real then a surnit must be real," after hearing "surnit" after "scientist" in the word test.

The bottom line: Young kids may not be as gullible as grown-ups think.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Woolley, J. Child Development, November/December 2006; vol 77: pp 1778-1793. News release, Society for Research in Child Development.

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