Magical thinking and creativity in preschool childrenEugene Subbotsky and Clare HystedLancaster University, United Kingdom
Magical thinkingMagical thinking is the ways of acting and reasoning about the physical world that violate known physical principles Contrary to science, magical thinking embraces the idea that thoughts, words and even wishes can produce physical effects on inanimate objects.
Research on magical thinkingHas shown that in the age of 4 to 6 years most children believe in magic, both in their actions and verbal judgments (Harris et al, 1991; Phelps and Woolley, 1994; Subbotsky, 2004)Subbotsky (1985) looked at 4, 5 and 6-year old children. They were told a story involving a magical box which could turn pictures into real objects, and when asked if this could happen in reality the vast majority denied the possibility. However, when the experimenter left the children alone in the room, 90% used magical commands in an attempt to change the pictures into real objects, and were very disappointed when they could not make this happen.
Social uses of magical thinkingMultinational industries (such as toy production and entertainment) exploit and support magical beliefs in children. By the age of 6, most children have seen Harry Potter and have had books about wizards and fairies read to them. In most families, children are exposed to magical folk characters, such as Santa Claus, the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy (Clark, 1995; Woolley, 1997). Yet, despite the pervasive nature of the phenomenon, surprisingly little is known about its effects on childrens cognitive and social development.
The problemIs childrens magical thinking just a by-product of cognitive development that is confined to the area of play and entertainment?Or does it play a role in cognitive development?It is hypothesized in this study that magical thinking does play a part in cognitive development, by enhancing creative thinking in children.
CreativityCreativity is increasingly described a the capacity to generate novelty in action and thinking, independently of whether the new products have or dont have any utilitarian value (Runco, Nemiro & Walberg, 1998; Smith, 2001)
Creativity in childrenIn her pioneering work Elizabeth Andrew (1930) suggested that creative imagination exists in all normal children.Quality of fantasy and imagination in early play was found to be a predictor for divergent thinking over time, independently of IQ (Russ, Robins and Christiano,1999; Russ and Kaugars, 2001)
Magical thinking and creative thinkingBy definition, magical thinking is the ability to construct a world that is alternative to the real world. In this capacity, magical thinking is a branch of divergent thinking - the capacity to solve problems that imply not just one correct answer but a variety of alternative solutions.Divergent thinking is also seen as important component of creativity. These common features make it possible to ask a question about the potential link between magical thinking and creativity.
Assessing creativityA common method of assessing creativity is through divergent thinking measures. Torrances Thinking Creatively in Action and Movement (TCAM) test was designed to measure 4 to 8 year old childrens capacity to show creativity (Torrance, 1981)
TCAM and Divergent problem solvingReisman et al. (1980) showed that preschool childrens scores on TCAM significantly correlated with a modified Piagets set of measures on divergent problem solving
Aim of the studyTo examine if presenting children with a highly magical film display that promotes fantastical and imaginative associations is likely to make children show greater creativity in subsequent tests if compared with children who have been presented with a film without any magical content.
ParticipantsTwenty five 4-year-olds and twenty seven 9-year-olds. The children were in the same class at school but came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds in the area of greater London.In the younger age group, 12 children were in the control and 13 in the experimental condition. In the older group, the numbers were 13 and 14, accordingly.
DesignIndependent variables were Type of intervention the children experienced (2: magical and non-magical), and Age (2: four or six years). The dependent variables were the measures of creativity, assessed through both the TCAM (giving fluency, originality and imagination scores) and the childrens drawings and responses to questions about these drawings, rated on originality and unreality.
Pre-testsAfter being randomly assigned to groups, children were individually required to carry out activity 1 of the Torrance test, which involved moving across the room in as many different ways as possible. Six-year-olds also had to draw two pictures of non-existing objects (toy and fruit) and answer questions about these prior to the intervention. This was to ensure that the control and experimental groups were not significantly different prior to the intervention impact.
Experimental manipulationParticipants watched one of two intervention films which were 15 minutes long and comprised scenes from the film Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, deemed as having either magical or non-magical content. The magical scenes included animals talking, witches and wizards using wands, performing magic spells and flying on broomsticks. The non-magical film was made up of scenes with the same characters but in this case having conversations with no mention of any non-standard behaviour or beliefs.
Equating the filmsTen judges who were blind to the purpose of the film, independently rated the films on the following scales: emotional response, magical content, pace, and richness in action (very poor 1, to very rich 5). The films scored the same on all scales but magical content, with magical content of the magical film scoring significantly higher than that of the non-magical film.
Assessing the resultsAfter watching the films, children individually completed the remaining activities (2, 3 and 4) on the Torrance test. For example, in activity 4 the children used cups: they were required to think of alternative uses for the cups, for instance by pretending that the cup is a drum. Six-year-old children were then asked to draw and answer questions on four further non-existing objects (animal, car, house and plant).
ScoringThe Torrance test was scored as in the manual (Torrance, 1981)The drawings and questions were independently scored by two judges who were blind to the purpose of the experiment, on a scale of 1-5 in terms of originality and non-reality, according to a codebook.The inter-rater agreements, as assessed by Cohens kappa, were all over 0.90 for both originality and non-reality.
Non-existing toyDoll that comes to life-it comes to life and says I love you. Can eat real foodThe puppy,pink puppy,eats apples
Non-existing fruitMagic banana - open it and its gold
Purple and green grapes, red and green apple
Non-existing animalA really big mouse, wears clothes, stands up like a real person, eats massive cheese and lives in a demon houseSpecial rabbit that jumps high, lives in a new house, eats bananas
Non-existing carIts the mouses car, so its big and round - its got eyes at the front and it can eat cheese Its a car, dad drives it
Non-existing houseIts an alive house, it has eyes, and mouth and it eats cheese to make it bigger, to get in one has to go through the mouthIt rains in the roof
Non-existing plantIt grows in the mouses garden, its a fat tree, it eats cheese to get biggerIt grows in a pot, its a specially colored flower
ResultsOn the pre-test, ANOVA and Mann-Whitney test showed all differences but one between control and experimental groups to be not significant.
Summary of resultsThe baseline level of the capacity to perform on creativity tests was about the same in both control and experimental conditions.However, after the intervention all three measures of TCAM showed a significant advantage of the experimental condition over the control condition. Similarly, after the intervention scores of 6-year-olds drawings of non-existing objects were significantly higher in children of the experimental condition than in children of the control condition, for both originality and non-reality measures. This supported the expectation that exposing children to the film with highly magical content would increase their tendency towards divergent thinking and behaviour.
Interpretation of resultsThe findings provided support to the hypothesis that showing children a magical display promotes divergent thinking and creativity.
Educational implicationExposing preschool children to visual material that contains magical effects can positively affect their academic and social development, through promoting creative divergent thinking.