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Fantasy Is a Valuable Educational Tool. Just Look at ‘Barbie’ (Opinion)

This summer provided a surprising new source of inspiration for the millions of educators and policymakers now heading back to school: Barbie.

In a world in which generative AI will be able to amass information faster than humans and in which essays can be crafted by computers, children must learn to think outside the box—literally, in Barbie’s case—not only about what is actual but also about what is possible. By embracing fantasy as an important tool in education, we help all children to create paths from the world as it is to the world as we’d like it to be.

Though not without problems, Barbie dolls have long been found to encourage the kind of open-ended, imaginative play that provides a rich context for learning. For example, preschool curricula that include active playful learning approaches lead to improvements in students’ academic and social development. Because play is intrinsically motivating, it can help students to engage with and focus on educational material.

And the recent “Barbie” movie, which invites us to imagine Barbieland as a (very pink) world with plastic oceans and open-faced dream houses, might hold an important key to helping educators nurture children’s curiosity and creativity, from preschool through high school.

Schooling has traditionally rejected the inclusion of fantastical elements in favor of serious instruction—and there are good reasons for doing that. But the “Barbie” movie uses its fantasy setting to powerfully demonstrate a crucial function that unrealistic stories can play in learning: allowing us to see our own world from a different point of view. Only when we do that can we understand why things are the way that they are can we imagine the many ways that things could be, which enables us to make positive changes.

On one level, the “Barbie” movie uses its fantasy setting to powerfully demonstrate the ills of a patriarchal society and the promises of a kinder, more matriarchal one. But the movie also demonstrates the role that fantasy can play in closing the gap between what is real and what is imagined. With respect to classroom learning, our research shows that exposing children to fantasy stories like this one has a wealth of educational benefits.

For example, children in one of our studies learned new vocabulary words better when they heard those words in books with fantasy themes (like dragons) rather than with realistic themes (like farming). Work from our labs and others finds that children learn mathematical concepts, animal facts, biological principles, and problem solutions better from stories that contain fantastical elements (like a hamster that can walk through the walls of its tank) than from wholly realistic stories.

What is the reason for this fantasy advantage? Fantasy might be a particularly good educational tool because it encourages children to attend more closely to the learning context, motivating them to go beyond business as usual in their solutions to problems in math, literacy, and other subjects. In support of this argument, one study suggests that including fantasy elements in an educational story is more effective if these elements are linked to the plot of the story.

Another good example is this program from the Concord Consortium, which teaches the principles of genetic inheritance to middle and high schoolers using virtual dragons.

Interestingly, this effect may have its roots early in development: One study found that infants who saw a toy car perform an impossible action (rolling down a hill and appearing to roll through a solid barrier) learned new information about the car better than infants who saw it perform an ordinary action (rolling down the hill and stopping at the barrier).

So what’s the big lesson that schools can take from “Barbie”? That fantasy offers an important way to nurture learning and problem-solving skills. Educators should feel free to lean into the fun of exploring fantastical worlds to capture and sustain students’ attention and to highlight important aspects of their lessons.

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