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They Say: Santa and the Tooth Fairy Help Kids Learn

santa-collageDo kids need Santa, or the Tooth Fairy? Maybe. A growing body of research suggests that children’s imagination is not simply an escape from reality, but an important learning skill on its own.

Imagination allows children to practice empathy, and some research is showing that children with autism rarely engage in fantasy play. That may contribute to their social deficits, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

The article goes on to describe some interesting research into how children determine what is real and what is fantasy. One study asked kids how many believed the garbage man was real and how many thought Santa Claus was real. Among three-year-olds, 70 percent believed that Santa Claus was real, while 78 percent believed in the garbage man. At five years old, even more kids believed in the garbage man and the highest percentage of Santa believers occurred, at 83 percent. By age 7, belief in Santa declined and was down to a third by age 9, while almost all those kids thought the garbage man was real.

The garbage man was chosen as a corollary to Santa because like Santa, there’s evidence of his presence — garbage is put out by the curb and taken away — but few children see him in action. Older kids can put the pieces together, but come to the wrong conclusion, while younger kids are actually less likely to believe in Santa because they lack the cognitive skills to put together all the evidence.

Adults are powerful motivators too — parents tell kids the Santa story and it reinforces their beliefs. In another experiment, the researchers told kids the story of the Candy Witch, who brings children a toy in exchange for their Halloween candy. Some parents were asked to do the exchange with their children, and those children were much more likely to believe in the character because they’d seen evidence.

Researchers say parents shouldn’t feel they have to engage in fantasies like Santa or the Tooth Fairy, but if they choose not to they should reinforce their children’s imaginations by asking them questions about the pretend play they do engage in.

Image: Viktor Koen/WSJ

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