Ages & Stages: How Children Use Magical Thinking
Understanding how children use magical thinking to learn about and explore their world.
- Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K
Stage by Stage 0 - 2
- Babies need to be the center of a loving, predictable world-the essential core experience for all kinds of thinking, both magical and rational.
- Toddlers base their thinking on what they see, hear, and feel-often resulting in inaccurate but creative conclusions.
- Two-year-olds work hard, through much exploration, at developing their unique theories about the world.
Stage by Stage 3 - 4
- Threes and fours often use magical thinking to explain causes of events.
- Preschoolers sometimes assign their own thinking as a reason for occurrences that are actually out of their control.
- Three- and 4-year-olds believe, with their powers of magical thinking, that they can change reality into anything they wish.
Stage by Stage 5 - 6
- Fives and sixes move in and out of magical thinking as explanations for what they see.
- Kindergartners use dramatic play as a way to sort through what is fantasy and what is reality.
- Five- and 6-year-olds are still in an animistic stage, thinking inanimate objects can come alive.
0 to 2 "NO! IT GET ME!" by Caria Poole
A young baby's world revolves around her own experiences. Those experiences are dominated by physical sensations, such as a gas bubble or a soft blanket, with blurred distinctions between herself and the rest of the world. She lives in the moment. For example, 4-month-old Jessica is fascinated by a toy her teacher is holding. She stares at it intently. Yet, when the toy is dropped out of view, Jessica doesn't look down to find it. She simply looks at another object that is in her direct line of sight. Her behavior implies, "I see the toy, therefore it exists. I don't see the toy and it doesn't." Her worldview is a series of images based on her own experiences rather than a sequence of logical events.
Moments of Magical Thinking
By 12 months, an infant's thinking becomes more rooted in the reality that objects and people remain the same even when out of sight. This concept of object permanence, along with an expanding memory, makes the baby's life a bit more predictable. But, she still often misinterprets reality. For instance, 1-year-old Jemima voices displeasure and is frightened when a toy unexpectedly rolls just a few inches toward her. The world is a mystical place, and babies have a fragile understanding of the difference between animate and inanimate objects.
Seeing is Believing
When working with toddlers, it's important to remember that they will make connections that are illogical and frustrating. No amount of reassurance is going to immediately convince 16-month-old Ashley that she can't slip down the bathtub drain like the sliver of soap just did. In cases such as this, you can recommend to parents that they temporarily let the toddler bathe standing up-supporting her while she stands on a safety mat fastened to the tub's surface. They can reassure her that she is too big to go down the drain and that they will keep her safe. It's important to respect toddlers' fears and to understand that, for them, it is often the case that seeing is believing. "The soap slipped down the drain, so I can, too."
Moving Toward Abstract Thinking
At around 18 months, emerging language and long-term memory pull toddlers out of the purely sensory world into more complex, abstract thinking. They begin to grasp concepts such as cause and effect. Difficulties begin because their reasoning, which seems quite logical to them, has little connection with reality. For example, 20-month-old Jason spills a small amount of juice on the table just before a baby in the room lets out a piercing cry. Jason's expression becomes very sad and serious. We can't know for sure-that's the challenge of caring for preverbal children-but Jason may think his accidental action caused the baby to cry.
A thriving 2-year-old is a busy scientist actively exploring and creating his own theories about how things work. Julian loves to turn lights on and off. Does he think it is his fingertip that magically creates light and dark? Or, is it the blinking of his eyes that he does each time he flicks the switch? Two-year-olds do not have enough information about the world yet to draw reasonable conclusions.
Remember that magical thinking is the very young child's way of trying to figure out how things work.
What You Can Do
Try to offer continuity of teacher-child relationships to help babies build a healthy sense of self.
Describe events in clear and simple language. This helps toddlers organize their thinking.
Provide plenty of opportunities for pretend play. Toddlers experiment with reality through dramatizations.
3 to 4 "I'M QUEEN! OBEY MY ORDERS!" by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.
On Friday, 4-year-olds Petra and Hunter carefully balance cardboard boxes on top of one another to create a mighty castle. Uninvited, Brent straightens their castle's walls and moves some of the girls' boxes. Very annoyed that he keeps touching their structure, Petra finally shouts at Brent, "We banish you from our kingdom forever. Go away!" On Monday morning, Brent does not show up at school. At first, Petra and Hunter are delighted that Brent is not around to bother them. Then, they become a little worried that Brent is missing because of what they said. This belief that what they wish or expect can affect what really happens is a result of preschoolers' inclination towards magical thinking. Because the girls were really mad at Brent and they wanted him to leave, when he got a sore throat and did not show up at school the girls were seriously concerned that his disappearance was all their fault.
During this magical-thinking stage of development, cause and effect are not necessarily objectively determined, but slanted by the preschoolers' desires. For example, 4-year-old Lily tells her teacher every day that she really wants a pony. One day, Lily decides if she collects a big pile of grass and leaves it on the playground it will tempt her desired pony to come and eat. Imagine Lily's excitement the next day when the pile of grass is all gone. Lily is convinced that the pony she wants so badly visited overnight. Her plan worked! It does not matter that it was very windy and the pile of grass really blew away.
Other aspects of preschoolers' thinking are similarly magical and often quite delightful. Because of their lack of experience, young children often take things quite literally. Sara was astonished when her big sister told her, "I don't like eggplant. It makes my stomach turn over." When Sara's mom said, "Now I'm in hot water. I forgot your permission slip for the field trip," Sara thought this was pretty silly, because her mom certainly wasn't standing in any hot water. And when Sara's teacher said she was "tickled pink" over her birthday card, Sara kept watching her face to see it turn color.
The most amazing part of magical thinking for young children is their belief that they can make life be anything they want it to be. And, of course, wishes and dreams help to make us who we are. Years ago, a little girl named Rachel arrived at my preschool class one morning with her mom's lacy half-slip gathered under her arms and fastened with a sparkly rhinestone brooch. As she twirled around, Rachel announced she wished to create outfits for fairy princesses. And the wonderful thing of it is, today this former magical thinker is a professional designer!
What You Can Do
Encourage children to discuss their feelings. Let them talk about their fears, anger, sadness, and hopefulness.
Use drawings to communicate. Provide markers, crayons, and paints so young children can illustrate their "magical thinking."
Read and dramatize stories. Preschoolers need experiences with pretend and real situations to help them be able to make necessary distinctions in their magical thinking.
5 to 6 "I HAVE SPECIAL POWERS!" by Ellen Booth Church
Five-year-old Aaron is excitedly talking about a family camping trip. He is particularly impressed with watching day turn to night. When his kindergarten teacher asks him how he thinks this happens, he says, "This guy makes the nighttime when it gets dark out. He makes it with his magic star and then it gets dark! "
Learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality is an important developmental step that children make in the kindergarten year. In fact, 5- and 6-year-olds tend to step in and out of reality in their dramatic play as well as their view of the world. Children at this stage can be predictably unpredictable. They can be very clear about what is real and pretend in some situations, but still engage in magical thinking in others. Santa Claus is a perfect example. Many older fives and sixes are beginning to understand that presents actually come from family and friends, not a man in a red-and-white suit. But when they see a particularly good Santa Claus at a department store, they react to him as (or even call him) "the real one." This is a perfectly normal part of the process of figuring out reality from fantasy. It is better to allow children the time and space to create their own understanding, rather than try to convince them of the "truth."
Making Magical Dramas
Kindergarten is a time of fairytales and dragons, and the time to wonder if they are real or pretend. Dramatic play is an important way children sort out and differentiate between the two. Dramatic play gives kindergartners the place, license, and means to experiment with fantasy and even inhabit frightening characters or events. It is the process of trying on these magical characters that allows children to gain control over a disturbing situation and begin to develop a sense of independence. Five and 6-year-olds use magical beliefs in dramatic play to help them manage the chaos of their inner and outer lives. For example, becoming a superhero in play can be part of children's quest for power in a world where they have very little. While we don't want children to engage in power play exclusively, it is important to recognize that acting out some of these magical powers is natural and essentially harmless.
Noted psychologist Jean Piaget felt that fives and sixes could easily attribute actions and thoughts to an inanimate object. This is a great asset in dramatic play. During the animistic stage, children give inanimate objects life, movement, and even feelings. For example, a child might say, "This car wants to go back to the garage now because it is tired." What a delightful way to see the world!
Kindergartners may be clear about what is real or pretend, but they still use magical thinking to explain what they see as reactions to their own behavior. They might believe that their desires have an effect on others. For example, "My brother fell off the swing set because I was angry." Or, that actions can actually affect the world in magical ways, as in "Step on a crack, you'll break your mother's back." The danger here is that sometimes children will use magical thinking to blame themselves for things that happen in their family lives. A child at this stage might blame herself for a parent's illness, thinking that it happened because she was "bad." And often, a 5-year-old will keep this kind of magical thinking to herself. In cases such as these, it's important to tell a child that there was nothing anybody "did" that caused this particular event to happen.
Exploring Cause and Effect
Kindergartners can use magical thinking to explain cause and effect. They might offer what seem like illogical explanations of how the natural world works. But often their thinking, while not totally accurate, is based on some experience or observation. It is as if they are putting two and two together and not necessarily getting four, but are still using important thinking skills. When a group of children observed a rainbow outside the classroom window, one little girl said she thought "rainbows are in the sky because the trees blow." Sure enough, the trees did blow as the wind moved the clouds out of the way to reveal the rainbow! She was using her observational skills to explain what she saw. Another child said he thought rainbows came from people blowing bubbles. "When they blow bubbles, we get more and more rainbows." This 5-year-old was applying an experience with the "rainbows" in bubbles to the natural events of rainbows in the sky. You don't have to agree with children's magical explanations, but it's important to listen to and accept their ideas.
What You Can Do
Ask children "Why-do-you-think-it-happens?" questions about natural occurrences, such as rain, snow, or the leaves changing colors. Accept all of their ideas equally but listen for the level of magical or real thinking in their answers.
Create the right space and time (such as on the playground) for superhero play, and watch carefully for opportunities for children to work through their fears and let go of the need for power play.