[Science Solitaire] How do kids know what's 'real?'

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

Without Googling it, many would not have correctly guessed that the advice above is from a scientist – Albert Einstein. Most people think that scientific minds do not value works of fiction and other creative endeavors as much as they do experimentation and reasoning. But from reading the works of many scientists I admire, I find that this distinction is not real in their heads. To scientists, “imagination” is the larger “sky” that embraces what we think of as the sciences and the arts. 

As they grow up, children come to terms with the many nuances of reality, having figures that capture their imagination. Some of these figures may be real and some do not really exist but they occupy special places in a child’s mind. But how do kids rank the reality of the many kinds of “figures” in their life? 

A very recent study done in Australia pursued this question and found some very interesting answers. They asked kids (ages 2-11) to categorize certain figures as belonging to 5 categories: "Real People" (a person known to the child, The Wiggles – a band very popular among Australian children that tours around the country ), "Cultural Figures" (Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy), "Ambiguous Figures" (Dinosaurs, Aliens), "Mythical Figures" (unicorns, ghosts, dragons), and "Fictional Figures" (Spongebob, Squarepants, Princess Elsa, Peter Pan). 

The categories were based on whether the children have had direct or indirect evidence of the existence of such figures, whether there are rituals involved in interacting with the figure and if the figure has been outrightly endorsed as fictional. 

The study revealed that indeed, children seem to rank the “realness” of the figures in their own direct or indirect experience of something. But what is really interesting is that the study found that specific rituals associated with figures strengthened a child’s endorsement for that figure. They cited examples such as placing “tooth” (versus any other calcium-dominated body part that you get rid of, like toenails) for the tooth fairy. That would also mean how Christmas-specific Santa Claus is and that his “realness” will not be worth anything during Lent for children. 

What I found quite funny was the revelation that the adults in the control group of the study were inclined to endorse “aliens and ghosts” at relatively high levels but not “unicorns.” It made me wonder what adults will think when shown a narwhal instead of a unicorn. Narwhals are like unicorns except that narwhals exist not just in our heads but in the Arctic waters. 

What was even funnier to me was the finding that “children endorse ghosts significantly more than adults, but only by a small margin.” This was interesting because the endorsement of older children in the group for  “aliens, ghosts, and dragons”  as “real” were lower than that of the younger kids. If this trajectory continued in adult life, it would not be a virtual tie, as it was revealed here, between kids and adults about “ghosts” as real. 

What was also striking is the role culture (rituals) play in strengthening the “realness” of a figure. The more you attach rituals to a “figure,” the more “real” it becomes to a child. But as with Santa Claus, we realize as we grow up that the “realness” of Santa Claus is more attached to our real desire to teach children the joy and gratitude of having a gift giver who is unseen but still cares enough to travel at length to deliver just the right gift. That is why the ritual is largely reinforced and passed on to the next generation amid an unspoken rule among many adults not to reveal the secret. I am sure the local figures like “kapres” (which my own mother swears to this day to have seen while biking as a child) served to keep kids from roaming outside their homes at night, which she was precisely guilty of. 

This study unboxed what we have always suspected: that kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Children could articulate which figure was real, in what sense, and why as far as their experiences with these figures were concerned. Children can apparently grade reality better and in ways that could shame the staunchest of adult ideologues. (READ: The gifted journey of the Philippines’ “Little Picasso”)

So expand that territory for children’s imagination as much as you can. Read to them and let them read as many fairy tales and whatever stories there are in this wondrous universe. Yes, the universe is made up of atoms but is also made up of stories. You can know the universe through both atoms and stories. They are not only both real but both are the ingredients that make for a better and fuller human being! – Rappler.com 

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.