Departmental Colloquium: Paul Harris, Graduate School of Education, Harvard University: Children's ideas about what can and cannot happen
Children's ideas about what can and cannot happen
Young children are often credited with a rich imagination that enables them to enjoy a variety of fantasy worlds. I argue that this portrait is misleading. When children engage in imaginative play and when they make sense of the pretend actions of a play partner, they routinely invoke their understanding of everyday causal regularities. As such, their pretend play tends to reproduce the familiar, pedestrian routines of everyday life even it can also be laced with transgression and disruption. I argue that this restriction on pretend worlds also applies to children’s thinking about counterfactual possibilities. Although there is evidence that young children are able to think about how reality might have turned out otherwise, I will argue that children invoke only modest departures from what actually happened – departures that typically fall within the range of everyday causality. I will also explore a potentially powerful objection to this insistence on the pedestrian and reality-bound nature of children’s imagination. Children are receptive to religious and fictional narratives in which miraculous or magical events occur. Since these events do depart from ordinary reality, the implication is that children enjoy a fertile imagination. However, I will present evidence that children’s receptivity is quite dependent on input from the surrounding culture. Thus, although children’s imagination can be fed, and arguably enriched, by religious and fictional narratives, they are not prone to generate such narratives autonomously. Finally, I will discuss the extent to which this somewhat withholding portrait of children’s imagination can be extended to that of adults.