The creation of imaginary persons, objects, or events in response to a psychological need.
Fantasy plays an important role in the lives of children, especially in their play. Because of their egocentric focus, children, unlike healthy adults, can have trouble distinguishing their fantasies from reality. In addition to developing creativity, fantasy can serve the important function of helping a child confront her fears and desires in a safe context that she can control.
The most common form of childhood fantasy is the imaginary playmate or friend, which often appears in early childhood, most commonly at the age of three or four. Naturally, an imaginary playmate is invisible (as opposed to a toy or another object that the child invests with life). Rather than a sign of disturbance, imaginary friends are generally a sign of mental health. They are one of the most important ways that a child can exercise the imagination, which develops at around the age of three. Imaginary friends serve as an important emotional outlet that children can use to safely act out aggressive, controlling, rebellious, or other potentially threatening impulses. They also serve as a means of exploration, helping a child establish her identity by "trying out" different ways to be, including different genders. Finally, imaginary friends give children a zone of privacy at a time when there are few areas of their lives free from intrusion by others. As long as a child maintains a healthy balance between private time with her imaginary friend and social time with peers, an imaginary friend is an asset to mental health and development between the ages of three and six.
While fantasies often serve as a means of wish fulfillment, they can also express fears. Of all fantasies, fantasies about death are most frequent in children, adolescents, and the elderly. Several psychologists have theorized that the frightening fantasies of children express a universal fear that their parents, who are so much larger and more powerful than they, will kill them, or that they will kill their parents.
In addition to the fantasies that they create on their own, fantasy provided through fairy tales and other narratives can play an important role in helping children interpret events in their lives and deal with fear, anxiety, anger, jealousy, and other frightening emotions.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.
Bloch, Dorothy. So the Witch Won't Eat Me: Fantasy and the Child's Fear of Infanticide. New York: Grove Press, 1978.
Clark, Cindy Dell. Flights of Fancy, Leaps of Faith: Children's Myths in Contemporary America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Paley, Vivian. Bad Guys Don't Have Birthdays: Fantasy Play at Four. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.