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Fantasy orientation constructs and related executive function development in preschool: Developmental benefits to executive functions by being a fantasy-oriented child

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This study explored unique constructs of fantasy orientation and whether there are developmental benefits for fantasy-oriented children. By age 3, children begin developing executive functions, with some children exhibiting high fantasy orientation in their cognitions and behaviors. Preschoolers (n = 106) completed fantasy orientation measures and executive function tasks, including parent and teacher questionnaires. Principal Component Analysis revealed four specific constructs within fantasy orientation (FO). Relations were examined between children's FO constructs and executive functions to determine if developmental benefits exist with being fantasy-oriented. Hierarchical linear regressions suggested that certain FO constructs are uniquely related to specific executive functions, such that there are potentially specific developmental benefits to being a fantasy-oriented child (i.e., inhibition and attention shift positively related to fantastical cognitions).
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Fantasy orientation constructs and related
executive function development in
preschool: Developmental benefits to
executive functions by being a
fantasy-oriented child
Jillian M. Pierucci,
1
Christopher T. O’Brien,
2
Melissa A. McInnis,
2
Ansley Tullos Gilpin,
2
and Angela B. Barber
2
Abstract
This study explored unique constructs of fantasy orientation and whether there are developmental benefits for fantasy-oriented children.
By age 3, children begin developing executive functions, with some children exhibiting high fantasy orientation in their cognitions and beha-
viors. Preschoolers (n¼106) completed fantasy orientation measures and executive function tasks, including parent and teacher ques-
tionnaires. Principal Component Analysis revealed four specific constructs within fantasy orientation (FO). Relations were examined
between children’s FO constructs and executive functions to determine if developmental benefits exist with being fantasy-oriented. Hier-
archical linear regressions suggested that certain FO constructs are uniquely related to specific executive functions, such that there are
potentially specific developmental benefits to being a fantasy-oriented child (i.e., inhibition and attention shift positively related to fantas-
tical cognitions).
Keywords
attention shift, executive functions, fantastical entities, fantasy orientation, fantasy/reality distinction, imaginary companions, inhibitory
control, pretend play
Research has discovered individual differences in children’s
engagement in fantasy. Some children are more reality-focused,
engaging in more realistic play and not creating imaginary compa-
nions, whereas other children are more fantastical, engaging often
in pretend play and creating imaginary companions (Sharon &
Woolley, 2004; Singer & Singer, 1981, 1990; Taylor, 1999; Tay-
lor & Carlson, 1997; Taylor, Cartwright, & Carlson, 1993). Open-
ness to fantasy is a dimension of the openness personality trait,
seen across ages (McCrae, 1993). Although the adult literature has
investigated relationships between personality traits and intelli-
gence (John & Srivastava, 1999), little developmental research
has explored whether children’s developing cognitive skills
may be related to their fantasy orientation. Naturally, fantasy-
oriented children participate more in pretense activities that utilize
their developing cognitive skills (e.g., executive functions). For
example, children use executive functions such as inhibitory con-
trol to suppress a thought and replace it with an alternative such as
imagining their bedroom as a tree house in the rainforest. Atten-
tional shift occurs when switching back and forth between fantasy
and reality. Additionally, working memory allows children to
remember which context they are playing in and to help them
recall the appropriate play scripts. For these reasons, researchers
have speculated that there is a developmental advantage to being
a fantasy-oriented child (Sharon & Woolley, 2004; Taylor &
Carlson, 1997), but research is needed to empirically investigate
these relations.
Fantasy orientation
Fantasy orientation is a term that describes an individual’s tendency
to think and play in a fantastical world (Sharon & Woolley, 2004;
Singer & Singer, 1990; Taylor, 1999; Taylor et al., 1993). Fantasy
orientation seems to be an individual difference that is stable
throughout childhood and even into adulthood (Woolley, 1997).
Some children are more reality-oriented, whereas others are more
fantasy-oriented. Children who are highly fantasy-oriented often
engage in pretend play, explain their world through fantastical enti-
ties, such as referring to their bedroom as a fairy’s castle, and some-
times even have imaginary companions. Measures of fantasy
orientation assess children’s creation of imaginary companion(s),
tendency to engage in pretend play, and involvement of fantastical
entities in their world (Taylor, 1999). Fantasy orientation can be
assessed through child interviews as early as age 3 when children
begin distinguishing fantasy from reality (Estes, Wellman, &
1
St Mary’s University, USA
2
The University of Alabama, USA
Corresponding author:
Jillian M. Pierucci, Department of Psychology, St Mary’s University, San
Antonio, TX 78228-8573, USA.
Email: jpierucci@stmarytx.edu
International Journal of
Behavioral Development
2014, Vol 38(1) 62–69
ªThe Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0165025413508512
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Woolley, 1989; Sharon & Woolley, 2004; Wellman & Estes,
1986; Woolley & Wellman, 1990). Additionally, children’s fan-
tasy orientation can be observed in their play. Researchers, par-
ents, and teachers observe great individual differences in
children’s fantasy orientation and play. Children who score low
on fantasy-orientation measures often use real items in their play,
such as building with blocks and playing board games, whereas
children who score high on fantasy orientation measures often
involve fantastical story lines, impersonations, and imaginary
companions in their play (Singer & Singer, 1981).
Because of the individual differences exhibited in children’s fan-
tasy play, researchers have speculated that fantasy orientation is an
umbrella term for several related thoughts and behaviors, including
imaginary companions, role play, interest in fantastical toys and
games, belief in fantastical entities, etc. Children who have been
classified as high fantasy-oriented may participate in many of these
behaviors, but not all. These individual differences may account for
some of the inconsistent reports of fantasy orientation correlates,
such as improved theory of mind and fantasy/reality distinction
(Boerger, Tullos, & Woolley, 2009; Dierker & Sanders, 1996; Prentice,
Manosevitz, & Hubbs, 1978; Sharon & Woolley, 2004; Singer &
Singer, 1981; Taylor et al., 1993; Woolley, Boerger, & Markman,
2004). Thus, in addition to investigating whether fantasy orienta-
tion is related to executive function development, a goal of this
research was to assess whether fantasy orientation is comprised
of several constructs, and whether these sub-constructs differen-
tially correlate with executive functions.
Executive functions
Executive functions (EF) are higher order, cognitive processes that
assist in recognition and control of an individual’s thoughts and
actions (Carlson, 2005; Reed, Pien, & Rothbart, 1984). Executive
functions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex and are instrumental
in facilitating goal setting, self-planning, working memory, attention,
and inhibition, which may be the most essential cognitive attainment
in early childhood (Bialystok & Craik, 2010). There are various tasks
that measure executive function development in childhood.
One executive function that develops during the preschool age is
inhibitory control. Inhibitory control is defined as an individual’s
ability to stop or prevent an automatic, prepotent response and initi-
ate an alternative response (Stroop, 1935; Wright, Waterman, Pre-
scott, & Murdoch-Eaton, 2003). Prepotent responses are responses
or actions that are well learned by an individual, have been solidly
reinforced, and are automatically retrieved. Inhibitory control can
be observed and measured as early as 3½ years old with the major-
ity of its development occurring by age 6 (Diamond & Taylor,
1996). Measures of inhibitory control evaluate two main types of
inhibition: (1) behavioral inhibition and (2) cognitive inhibition.
Additionally, inhibitory control tasks differ as to whether they only
ask children to delay an automatic response, or whether they pres-
ent a conflict that requires both a delay and a subsequent alternate
action. For example, the gift task (Kochanska, Murray, Jacques,
Koenig, & Vandegeest, 1996) measures behavioral inhibition by
assessing children’s ability to delay self-gratification (e.g., suppres-
sing the desire to peek at the gift being wrapped). Alternatively, the
Animal-Stroop task (Wright et al., 2003) measures cognitive inhibi-
tion by assessing an individual’s ability to suppress an automatic
response (e.g., facial recognition of animal), and instead replace
it with an alternative response (e.g., naming animal’s body).
Working memory is a second executive function that refers to an
individual’s temporary mental storage that allows one to manipu-
late information to process arduous cognitive tasks (Baddeley,
1992). There are various tasks that measure working memory, such
as the Backward Digit Span task (BDS; Halford, Maybery, & Bain,
1988). In this task, individuals hear digits read aloud and are asked
to repeat them backward.
Attentional shift is a third executive function that consists of an
individual’s ability to manage attention sources and shift attention
from one dimension to another dimension. There are various tasks
that measure attentional shift, such as the Standard Dimensional
Change Card Sort task (Standard DCCS, Frye, Zelazo, & Palfai,
1995; Zelazo, Mu
¨ller, Frye, & Marcovitch, 2003). The purpose of
the Standard DCCS is to examine how well participants perform
when switching from one set of rules to another set of rules (e.g.,
switching cards sorted by color to sorting by shape).
Purpose of the current study
This study had two primary aims: first to investigate whether fan-
tasy orientation measures comprise several constructs, and second
to investigate whether these FO constructs individually correlated
with executive functions. Researchers have speculated that
fantasy-oriented children might have better control of executive
functions because they switch between fantasy and reality so often
(Estes et al., 1989; Golumb & Kuersten, 1996; Morison & Gardner,
1978; Woolley & Wellman, 1990, 1993). For example, children
who are engaging in pretend play switch in and out of pretense
when their play is interrupted. When they switch, they use inhibi-
tory control to impede using pretend play scripts in real life. Chil-
dren also have to shift their attention between their pretend play
partner and the interrupter. Additionally, they use working memory
to recall the rules of pretend play versus rules of real life. Thus,
fantasy-oriented children might have more opportunities to practice
executive functions, thereby displaying better executive function
development than their peers.
Method
Participants
Participants were 106 preschool children who averaged 4 years and
11 months (M¼59.30, SD ¼6.25; range ¼48.4 months–74.5
months; 50 females and 53 males). Three participants were
excluded from the sample because of incomplete sessions. Of the
children, 73%were Caucasian, 23%were African American, and
4%were not specified. With regards to family income, 32%of the
families had annual incomes less than $24,999, 50%ranged from
$25,000 to $64,999, and 18%reported incomes of more than
$65,000. Children were recruited from preschools in the Southeast-
ern region of the United States.
Procedure
Children wereindividually interviewed for approximately 1 hour. All
sessions were videotaped and consisted of the following measures,
which were administered following the instructions provided in the
referenced citations: two fantasy orientation interviews, a behavioral
inhibitory control task, a cognitive inhibitory control task, a working
memory task, an attentional shift task, and a task assessing receptive
vocabulary. All measures were counterbalanced. Additionally, parent
Pierucci et al. 63
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and teacher questionnaires reported demographic information and
children’s fantasy behaviors and beliefs. The following are details
about the measures and questionnaires.
Fantasy orientation measures. To measure children’s fantasy
orientation, Taylor and Carlson’s (1997) Impersonation Interview,
Singer and Singer’s (1990) Imaginative Play and Predisposition
Interview, and Taylor and Carlson’s (1997) Imaginary Companion
Interview were administered. These interviews asked children to
report about the fantastical or realistic nature of their play, thoughts,
pretense engagement, imaginary companions, and belief in fantas-
tical entities. Higher scores indicate greater fantasy orientation. The
parent and teacher of each child separately completed question-
naires that asked about children’s beliefs in fantastical entities such
as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and asked teachers/parents to
rate children’s overall fantasy orientation on a scale from 1–5 (Gil-
pin, 2009), with 1 indicating ‘‘strongly interested in reality (e.g.,
play sports),’’ to 5 indicating ‘‘strongly interested in fantasy (e.g.,
often engages in pretense, enjoys fantastical books, etc.).’’ Taylor
and Carlson’s (1997) Imaginary Companion Interview assessed
whether or not children had imaginary companion(s), including
invisible and personified objects/entities.
Executive function measures. To assess children’s behavioral inhibi-
tion, each child participated in the Gift task (Kochanska et al., 1996).
This task asked children to wait for 60 seconds and not peek while a
gift was being wrapped for them. During the gift task, children’s beha-
vioral inhibition was measured in 3 ways, children’s: (1) attempt to
peek, (2) amount(s) of peeking, and (3) latency to first peek, if at all.
Poorer behavioral inhibition skills were evident in more attempts to
peek, more amounts of peeking, and lower latency to first peek.
To measure children’s cognitive inhibition, children completed
the Animal-Stroop task (Wright et al., 2003). Children were shown
four counterbalanced blocks of 24 trials each (96 trials total),
depicting animals (i.e., cow, duck, sheep, pig) with matching or
mismatched (stroop) heads and bodies. Two of the blocks contained
only matching images, and the other two blocks contained rando-
mized stroop and control images. In all trials, children were
instructed to name the animals’ bodies, rather than the animals’
faces, requiring children to inhibit their automatic response of facial
recognition. Children were reminded of the instructions once at the
beginning of each block, but were not prompted further. Both chil-
dren’s mean response time and their number of errors were
recorded independently for the matching and stroop trials. The dif-
ference between the stroop and matching trials’ reaction times and
errors were calculated as percentages f[(stroop-matching)/match-
ing] 100g. Higher percentage scores indicated poorer cognitive
inhibitory control, whereas lower percentage scores indicated better
cognitive inhibitory control.
To measure children’s attentional shift, they participated in the
Standard Dimensional Change Card Sort task (Standard DCCS;
Frye et al., 1995; Zelazo et al., 2003). In this task, children were
given a set of cards that varied by two colors and two shapes
(e.g., blue/red stars/squares). Children were asked to sort the cards
first by color and then by shape or vice versa. Children only parti-
cipated in each sort (i.e., color and shape) once. If the rules were not
clearly understood, the experimenter reminded the children of the
rules (n¼6) and provided feedback during pre-switch for the first
2 card sorts. Once children correctly sorted 5 cards consecutively,
the experimenter provided the new set of rules. The number of cards
that children sorted post-switch was tallied until children sorted
correctly five cards consecutively. Scores indicate the number of
incorrect card sorts the child sorted in order to sort 5 cards correctly
consecutively. Lower scores indicate better attention shift perfor-
mance (i.e., fewer incorrect card sorts). Note that both the pre- and
post-switch tallies were recorded in the event that it was necessary
to control for pre-switch performance. In this sample only a small
subset of participants (n¼6) had 1 or more incorrect pre-switch
card sorts after the instructions were explained, so pre-switch scores
were not controlled for in the reported analyses.
To measure working memory, children completed the Backward
Digit Span task (BDS; Davis & Pratt, 1996). The experimenter said
a series of digits (0-9) (e.g., ‘‘5–2–4’’) and children were asked to
repeat the digits backwards (e.g., ‘‘4–2–5’’). Series started with two
digits and increased one digit per series until the child was not able
to repeat a series correctly. Scores indicate the number of digits a
child correctly recalled, with higher scores indicating better work-
ing memory performance.
Results
First, items on fantasy orientation measures were examined to iden-
tify distinct constructs of children’s fantasy orientation. Secondly,
relations between children’s fantasy orientation (i.e., fantasy orien-
tation constructs) and performance on executive function tasks
were explored to examine whether there were developmental (i.e.,
executive function) benefits to being fantasy-oriented. See Table 1
for means and standard deviations of the reported measures.
Table 1. Means and (standard deviations) of fantasy orientation constructs
and executive function tasks.
Mean (SD) Overall range
Fantasy orientation constructs
Cognitions
IPP Talk .53 (.50) 0–1
IPP Think .78 (.78) 0–2
Entities
Imaginary companion .28 (.45) 0–1
Fantastical figures 3.86 (1.59) 0–7
Toys & games
IPP Toys 1.21 (.59) 0–2
IPP Games .75 (.78) 0–2
Pretense
IPP Animal .77 (.45) 0–2
IPP Person .61 (.49) 0–1
Executive function tasks
Animal-Stroop
Matching reaction time % 1.84 (.57) 1.10–4.6
Stroop reaction time % 3.12 (.96) 1.61–7
Matching errors 1.36 (1.50) 0–7
Stroop errors 3.39 (2.38) 0–11
Gift task
Attempt to peek 1.33 (.81) 0–2
Amount of peeks 1.23 (2.23) 0–12
First peek latency (seconds) 45.58 (19.14) 3–60
Card sort (SDCCS)
Incorrect pre-switch .33 (1.25) 0–9
Incorrect post-switch 1.05 (2.49) 0–18
Backward Digit Span (BDS) task 1.14 (1.07) 0–4
Note. N ¼103.
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Fantasy orientation constructs
To categorize children’s fantasy orientation into distinct compo-
nents, a Principal Components Analysis (PCA) with varimax rota-
tion was performed to assess which fantasy orientation items
clustered together to form separate FO constructs. The scree plot
identified 4 constructs. The first FO construct (‘‘Cognitions’’) con-
sisted of two items from Singer and Singer’s (1981) Imaginative
Play and Predisposition Interview: whether children talk to them-
selves before going to bed and what children think about before
going to bed (Eigenvalue ¼1.699, factor loadings: .754 and
.793). The second FO construct (‘‘Entities’’) included two compo-
nents: the first question from Taylor and Carlson’s (1997) Imagin-
ary Companion Interview that assessed whether or not children had
imaginary companion(s) and teachers’ reports of children’s belief
in fantastical figures from Gilpin’s (2009) fantasy orientation ques-
tionnaire (Eigenvalue ¼.956, factor loadings: .555 and .871). The
third FO construct (‘‘Toys and Games’’) included two items from
Singer and Singer’s Imaginative Play and Predisposition Interview
(1981) assessing children’s favorite toy(s) and children’s favorite
game(s) (Eigenvalue ¼1.224, factor loadings: .647 and .846). The
fourth FO construct (‘‘Pretense’’) consisted of two items from
Singer and Singer’s (1981) Imaginative Play and Predisposition
Interview: whether children pretend to be an animal or pretend to
be a person other than themselves (Eigenvalue ¼1.377, factor load-
ings: .677 and .722). The remaining items in the battery, such as the
parent report of children’s belief in fantastical figures and Singer’s
IPP item asking whether children pretend to be anything else, did
not load onto FO constructs.
Pearson’s Correlations were calculated between the four con-
structs. With the exception of a weak correlation between the ‘‘Pre-
tense’’ and ‘‘Entities’’ constructs (r¼.27, p¼.007), no other
correlations were significant. Thus each construct represented a
unique aspect of fantasy orientation. Similar to analytical
approaches in past fantasy orientation research (Sharon & Woolley,
2004), composite scores (i.e., mean of items’ zscores) were indivi-
dually calculated for these four FO constructs: ‘‘Cognition,’’ ‘‘Enti-
ties,’’ ‘‘Toys and Games,’’ and ‘‘Pretense.’’ Each of the FO
constructs’ composite scores was used in the following analyses
to determine if individual FO constructs were related to children’s
executive functions.
Relations between fantasy orientation constructs and
executive function skills
The following analyses examined how each fantasy orientation
construct identified through PCA was related to children’s execu-
tive function skills. See Table 2 for details of the regression analy-
ses. Preliminary analyses revealed that the executive function tasks
were not correlated with each other, with the exception of working
memory and behavioral inhibition (r¼.22, p¼.03, amount of
digits recalled backwards inversely related to amount of gift task
peeks). Thus, subsequent analyses compare FO constructs with
individual executive function measures.
Fantasy orientation ‘‘cognitions’’ construct. ‘‘Cognitions’’ consisted
of two items from Singer and Singer’s Imaginative Play and Predis-
position Interview assessing children’s thoughts. ‘‘Cognitions’
revealed a marginally significant relationship with children’s atten-
tion shift skills, as measured by the Standard Dimensional Change
Card Sort task. These data revealed that fantasy orientation was sig-
nificantly related to attentional shift. Using hierarchical linear
regression, controlling for children’s age in months, ‘‘Cognitions’
was related to children’s ability to sort cards correctly post-switch
in the Standard Dimensional Change Card Sort task, F(2, 99) ¼2.37,
p¼.099, b¼.555, p¼.046. That is, children who reported more
fantasy related cognitions had better attention shift by sorting fewer
cards incorrectly post rule shift during the card sort task.
Fantasy orientation ‘‘entities’’ construct. ‘‘Entities’’ consisted of
two items, which included children’s reports of whether or not they
had an imaginary companion and teachers’ reports about children’s
belief in fantastical figures. ‘‘Entities’’ displayed a significant rela-
tionship with children’s cognitive inhibition skills, as measured by
the Animal-Stroop task. Using hierarchical linear regression, con-
trolling for children’s age in months, ‘‘Entities’’ was significantly
related to children’s reaction times during the Animal-Stroop task,
F(2, 78) ¼3.21, p¼.046, b¼11.445, p¼.030. That is, as scores
on this construct increased (i.e., increased reports of imaginary
companions/belief in more fantastical entities), children demon-
strated better cognitive inhibition skills with a smaller percentage
difference in their reaction times between the stroop and matching
trials.
Fantasy orientation ‘‘toys and games’’ construct. ‘‘Toys and
Games’’ consisted of two items from Singer and Singer’s Imagina-
tive Play and Predisposition Interview assessing children’s favorite
toy(s) and game(s). ‘‘Toys and Games’’ displayed a significant rela-
tionship with children’s cognitive inhibition, as measured by the
Animal-Stroop task. Using hierarchical linear regression, control-
ling for children’s age in months, ‘‘Toys and Games’’ was related
to the amount of errors made during performance on the Animal-
Stroop task, F(2, 80) ¼10.46, p< .001, b¼.549, p¼.043. That
is, as children reported more favorite fantasy related toys and
games, they made more errors during the Animal-Stroop task, indi-
cating poorer cognitive inhibition.
Additionally, ‘‘Toys and Games’’ displayed a significant rela-
tionship with children’s working memory, as measured by the
Backward Digit Span task. These data revealed a significant,
inverse relationship between children’s reports of favorite fantasy
toys and games and working memory skills. Using hierarchical lin-
ear regression, controlling for both children’s age in months and
receptive vocabulary (PPVT, because it was significantly correlated
Table 2. Hierarchical linear regression results of children’s fantasy orienta-
tion components compared to performance on executive function tasks
(ß reported).
Fantasy orientation components
Executive function
tasks Cognitions
Toys &
games Entities Pretense
Animal-Stroop task:
Reaction time %
3.247 6.452 11.445* 3.556
Animal-Stroop task: Errors .001 .549* 469y.295
Gift task: Amount of peeks .003 .001 .097 .101
Card sort (SDCCS) task:
Post-switch
.555* .327 .275 .042
Backward Digit Span (BDS)
task
.046 -.273* .114 .098
Note. N ¼103; * p<.05,yp< .10. Age in months was controlled for with all exec-
utive function task regression analyses, PPVT standard scores were controlled for
with BDS (r¼.279, p¼.005) and sex was controlledfor with Pretense (r¼.246,
p¼.013).
Pierucci et al. 65
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with BDS, r¼.28, p¼.005), ‘‘Toys and Games’’ was significantly
related to the amount of digits correctly recalled on the Backward
Digit Span task, F(3, 97) ¼6.76, p< .001, b¼.273, p¼.031.
That is, as favoring fantasy toys and games increased, fewer digits
were recalled in the BDS working memory task, indicating poorer
working memory skills.
Fantasy orientation ‘‘pretense’’ construct. ‘‘Pretense’’ was not
found to be related to any of the executive function tasks using hier-
archical linear regression controlling for age in months and sex (due
to its correlation with ‘‘Pretense’’, r¼.246, p¼.013)
Additionally from these data, the gift task (behavioral inhibition
measure) was not related to any of the FO constructs using hierarch-
ical linear regression.
Discussion
There were two purposes to this study. First, to examine variation
within the fantasy orientation construct, and second, to determine
if these constructs uniquely relate to children’s developing execu-
tive functions.
Regarding the first purpose, previous researchers have specu-
lated that there may be individual differences in the type of fantasy
orientation that children display. For example, it is possible that a
child who frequently engages in fantastical toy and game activities
might not have imaginary companions and vice versa. Thus it is
reasonable to speculate that fantasy orientation might be comprised
of several distinct constructs. As hypothesized, Principal Compo-
nent Analysis revealed four distinct fantasy orientation constructs
in these data: (1) Cognitions (fantastical thoughts), (2) Entities
(beliefs in fantastical entities such as Santa Claus, and presence
of fantastical entities such as imaginary companions), (3) Toys and
Games (favorite toys and games being fantastically themed), and
(4) Pretense (engaging in pretense activities such as pretending to
be an animal). With the exception of a weak correlation between
‘‘Entities’’ and ‘‘Pretense,’ these FO constructs were unrelated.
These distinct FO constructs support the argument that fantasy
orientation is an umbrella term that encompasses multiple aspects
of fantasy behaviors and cognitions. Due to inconsistencies in cor-
relates with fantasy orientation, researchers have speculated that
individual differences exist in the composition of children’s fantasy
orientation (Boerger et al., 2009, Dierker & Sanders, 1996; Prentice
et al., 1978; Sharon & Woolley, 2004; Singer & Singer, 1981; Tay-
lor et al., 1993; Woolley et al., 2004; Woolley & Tullos, 2008).
Future research should confirm these constructs, determine if they
systematically resolve inconsistencies, and seek to determine if
common patterns emerge in the makeup of children’s fantasy orien-
tation constructs.
Regarding the second purpose, this study examined whether fan-
tasy orientation is related to developmental benefits, and specifi-
cally whether these benefits differ by fantasy orientation
construct. This is an important distinction because specific develop-
mental benefits, such as executive functions, may be related to a
particular fantasy orientation construct but not others. These data
revealed that certain aspects of fantasy orientation might be related
to specific executive functions. Namely, fantastical cognitions were
shown to be significantly related to better attention shift skills (i.e.,
Card Sort). Additionally, beliefs in fantastical/imaginary entities
were significantly related to better cognitive inhibition (i.e.,
Animal-Stroop reaction times). However, fantastical activities,
such as having favorite fantastical toys and games, were related
to poorer cognitive inhibition (i.e., Animal-Stroop errors) and
poorer working memory (i.e., Backward Digit Span task). And
lastly, pretense was unrelated to executive functions in these data.
These findings suggest that the cognitive aspects of fantasy orienta-
tion (thinking and belief) may be related to cognitive flexibility
with respect to attention shift and cognitive inhibition. In contrast,
these findings also suggest that behavioral aspects of fantasy orien-
tation may not be as related to increased cognitive flexibility.
In addition to these aforementioned results, the FO ‘‘Toys and
Games’’ construct’s relations with children’s cognitive inhibition
and working memory skills were inverse. In other words, as chil-
dren reported favoring more fantasy-related toys and games, they
made more errors during the Animal-Stroop task and recalled fewer
digits during the BDS task. Although measures of fantasy orienta-
tion include children’s favor of fantastical toys and games, such
activities may not be rooted in the same fantastical cognitions that
seem to be related to improved cognitive skills. Thus, future experi-
mental research examining causal links may examine whether some
fantastical activities involve enough fantastical cognitions for
increased exercise of executive functions, as these data suggest.
Additionally, it is important to note that the relationship between
fantasy orientation and working memory may become clearer as
children’s working memory skills develop further. In preschool-
aged children, the BDS task greatly taxes children’s executive func-
tion resources (Carlson, 2005). Although some 4-year-olds could
complete the task, there was a large floor effect, with 28%of chil-
dren not able to successfully perform the task to any degree. As
children’s executive functions mature with age, there might be a
more apparent relationship between children’s working memory
and fantasy orientation. Given these points, further research is
needed to explore the relationship of children’s fantasy orientation
activities, such as toy/game preference and pretense, and their exec-
utive functions.
Additionally executive functions have been considered more
unitary in childhood compared to adulthood due to their interrelated
development (Wiebe, Espy, & Charak, 2008; Wiebe et al., 2011).
The executive function tasks included in this study were not corre-
lated, with the exception of working memory and behavioral inhi-
bition, perhaps due to the limited executive function battery
comprising one measure of each skill. Accordingly, we chose to
present the executive function data as distinct individual skills.
However, future research of executive functions in young children
could explore executive functions as a composited skill rather than
individual higher order processing skills (Carlson, 2005; Reed
et al., 1984).
These four different constructs of fantasy orientation corrobo-
rate previous researchers’ speculations that there are different com-
ponents that comprise fantasy orientation (Taylor et al., 1993;
Taylor & Howell, 1973). This is important because it allows for
researchers to better define what fantasy orientation is and to better
assess individual differences in fantasy orientation. Additionally,
these components of fantasy orientation can provide clearer defini-
tions of fantasy orientation, allowing researchers to further explore
relations with developing abilities, such as executive functions, the-
ory of mind, and socialization. For example, children who exhibit
high levels of cognitive aspects of fantasy orientation, such as hav-
ing an imaginary companion, might display better cognitive skills,
such as narration or theory of mind (Bouldin, Bavin, & Pratt, 2002;
Taylor & Carlson, 1997; Trionfi & Reese, 2009). Future research
may also consider whether certain fantasy orientation constructs
contribute individually to social development (Gleason, 2002;
66 International Journal of Behavioral Development 38(1)
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Mauro, 1991; Nagera, 1969; Mathis, McInnis, Pierucci, & Gilpin,
2013; McInnis, Pierucci, & Gilpin, 2013; Taylor, Carlson, Mar-
ing, Gerow, & Charley, 2004).
Interestingly, the fantasy orientation constructs that were
related to better executive functions, namely inhibition and atten-
tion shift, were cognitive aspects of fantasy orientation. Fantasti-
cal thoughts, such as creating an imaginary companion or a
fantastical world, may be related to the development of the cogni-
tive aspects of executive functions like cognitive inhibition and
attention shift. Thus, these data suggest that fantasy orientation
may not be related to the development of executive functions
globally, but rather might have specific relations to developing
executive functions. Additionally, not all aspects of fantasy orien-
tation appear to be related to executive functions. For example, in
these data, it is evident that cognitive, but not behavioral, aspects
of fantasy orientation are related to executive functions. This
makes sense conceptually as fantastical cognitions are linked with
more cognitive executive functions. These relations are supported
empirically by related literatures that demonstrate that other
higher-order cognitions, such as bilingualism, are also related to
advances in executive functions (Bialystok, 1999, 2011; Bialystok
& Craik, 2010). Research in bilingual development has shown that
bilingual children, compared to monolingual children, have
advanced conflict inhibitory control skills (Bialystok & Craik,
2010; Carlson & Melzoff, 2008) and better attentional shift (Bia-
lystok, 1999) because they often switch between the two lan-
guages. Similar to bilingual children who switch between two
languages, fantasy-oriented children exercise executive functions
when they switch in and out of pretense.
One important discussion point is the direction of relations
between executive functions and fantasy orientation. Although the
present data are only correlational, we have suggested that fantasy
orientation possibly may influence specific developing executive
functions. However, given that the direction of these relations
remains unknown, it is also possible that children with better-
developed executive function skills engage in more fantasy-
oriented activities. This seems less likely, however, given the
stability of fantasy-orientation throughout the lifespan versus the
development of executive functions to maturity throughout child-
hood. Fantasy orientation is measured as a part of the openness
personality trait with research suggesting lifespan stability; for
example, adults with highly creative jobs, such as fiction writers,
reported having imaginary companions during childhood (McCrae,
1993; Taylor, Hodges, & Koha´nyi, 2002). Conversely, research on
executive functions demonstrates their developmental maturation
as well as their malleability via experience (Bialystok & Craik,
2010; Diamond & Taylor, 1996; Gerstadt, Hong, & Diamond,
1994; Zelazo et al., 2003). For example, children who are bilingual
develop executive function skills earlier than peers (Bialystok,
1999). Thus, we suggest that fantasy-oriented children exercise
their cognitive flexibility more which might be, indirectly or per-
haps causally, related to their developing executive functions. How-
ever, future longitudinal and experimental research is needed to
shed light on the exact nature and directionality of these relations
(c.f. Lillard et al., 2012).
In conclusion, these data suggest that fantasy orientation is
comprised of distinct components, and that children’s natural ten-
dency to engage in components involving fantastical cognitions,
but not fantastical activities, may be related to the development
of specific cognitive skills, such as cognitive inhibition and
attention shift. Thus, parents and teachers should not unduly
discourage children’s fantasy and imagination, as they may be
related to the development of executive functions and other emer-
ging skills. Additionally, relations between fantasy orientation
and executive functions could possibly have long-term effects
throughout the course of the lifespan. For example, high imagina-
tion during early childhood could be related to developmental
benefits that remain apparent throughout the life span, such that
stimulation from imagination in childhood could be related to the
delay of dementia in adulthood (Bialystok & Craik, 2010; Stern,
2002). Additionally, fantasy orientation in adults, as observed
by adults having creative hobbies and jobs, could be related to
increased cognitive and behavioral performance by protecting
individuals from age related decline. Future studies should
explore whether childhood fantastical cognitions are related to
any immediate and long-term cognitive benefits, and whether or
not having a(n) creative/imaginative outlet as an adult is also
related to improvement in executive functions.
Funding
This research was funded by a grant from the Research Grants
Committee of the University of Alabama to Ansley Gilpin.
Acknowledgment
We thank the children and parents who participated in this study.
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