Research Project

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Media and the Make-Believe Worlds of Children

Television kills the imagination of children!
This long cherished prejudice is as old as the medium itself. Closer observation, however, reveals a great richness of imagination in today’s children – although they grew up in a media society. The relationship between the imaginations of children and television is more complex than usually thought. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of children television in Germany, the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television in cooperation with national and international colleagues researched the relationship between imagination and television for children with a multinational and cross-generational comparison.

A. Children’s imaginations compared across cultures

The focus is on the imaginations of 8 to 9-year-old children and the role media play therein. The results from Germany are compared to the studies from the USA, Israel and Korea. Co-operation partners for this project are:

Dr. Amy Aidmann, University of Illinois, USA; Dr. Dafna Lemish, University of Tel Aviv, Israel; Dr. Hyesung Moon, Yonsei University, Seoul, Korea; Dr. Norbert Neuss, Pädagogische Hochschule Heidelberg, Germany

About 200 children imagined their “big daydream” on a journey into the imagination accompanied by music and text. Afterwards they painted it and wrote some sentences about it. They were interviewed about their imaginations and media favourites. Additionally, parents and educators contributed with background information.

The “big daydreams of children” are similar across national borders

The international comparison showed many similarities in the children’s imaginations. This was most obvious in the fantasy-worlds, the position and the behavioural options within this fantasy world, but also in the references to biography and everyday life. In all four countries the world of the “big daydream” shows the same nine characteristics:

The world of the big daydream
The world of harmony and peace / the world of conflict and threat / the world of supernatural power/ the world of technology / the world of travel / the world of sensual pleasure / the world of amusement / the world of royalty/ the stage world

In this world the children imagine themselves in a specific position, which in all four countries is connected with very similar behavioural wishes that can be subsumed in six categories:

The child in the world of the big daydream
To experience a feeling of well-being/ to experience thrill / to be special / to be connected to others / to protect and be protected / to act independently There are also structural similarities in the relations between the imaginations and the biography and real life-world of the children.

The imaginations could have been communicated by a significant other in their social circle. But also friends, parents and family members can play a role in these imaginations as well as locations and real existing animals. Several children’s their imaginations reflected individual interests that were important for identity formation in their life world. Partially, an actual experience served explicitly as a starting point for the fantasy world. Positive experiences are imagined again, negative experiences get corrected.

Media and especially television are part of children’s fantasy

Media traces in the imaginations can be found to some extent in an clearly explicit (articulated by the child) but also an implicit way (reconstructed by researchers). Again, the international comparison shows structural similarities. Children take characters, the setting, objects or even the plot or factual information from media or media arrangements that are attractive to them and incorporate them into their fantasy. Television and its media arrangements play an especially important role in the symbolisation of threat and action-directed defence of threat as well as the dramatization of the supernatural. However, there is also a number of “big dreams” without implicit or explicit media references. In the German survey, these constituted a quarter of the imaginations, three-fourths of which were those of girls. If there were detectable media traces, they were used by the children as symbolic material, in order to

a.) represent sensual experience and self-reception
b.) invent an own narration that would allow a steady fulfilment of behavioural wishes
c.) get into communication with others or create an adequate shared space

Children don’t use television as a single medium but mostly as part of a media arrangement, e.g. home video, radio play and books based on TV-series, that they watched regularly on TV. One part of the selected media were globalized media arrangements like Harry Potter, Pokémon, and Jurassic Park, whereas there are also items that are (so far) relevant to children in only one country.

A detailed analysis of the media traces (taking Germany as an example) revealed genre- or design-specific tendencies of how media relevant for children are used as building blocks for the imagination.

Fiction: Animation allows children to project themselves, where they can find themselves represented and which they can use to make up their own stories. The sequences they relate to are much more snatches, that quickly leave the media text. Children use children’s live-action movies in the context of “the big daydream” to imagine themselves in the leading part and to comprehend the plot. The assimilated media parts are likely to be longer and the fantasy is relatively close to the media text. Children use fantasy films and science fiction as settings in a faraway world in which they appear as a person equipped with according abilities. To some extent, the characters also become part of the child’s life-world that therefore becomes charged with magic.

Documentaries: Animal, nature and travel documentaries become the factual basis and starting point for the children’s own stories in which they imagine themselves in the role of the protector in order to resolve problems.

National and regional differences between countries

Besides commonalities there also appeared a set of national and regional particularities. Some examples:
The pictures in Korea are made with great care for detail. Computer games do have more relevance, at least for boys, for those imaginations in which they provide the setting and the plot for some imaginations. Looking at action-desires it becomes apparent that “standing out” does not occur, since a “public exposure” compared to others is frowned upon in Korean society. In only one case a girl showed this action-desire, even if in a very covert way.

In the imaginations of Israeli children the constant violent actions from their real life-world don’t have any presence. Different from Jewish educated children, Arabic educated children don’t include the state Israel into their imaginations; only the city they live in. In the USA the children painted their images with less care. However, the stories behind the imaginations are very rich, especially rich in media traces. One reason for this is the stronger impact of Fast-Food-Chains on everyday life and the common marketing of subject matters relevant to children there.

In Germany special issues emerged that did not appear with such dominance in other countries. Environmental protection is a central concern of the 8- to 9-year-olds, which they associate with a feeling of strength and competence. The antagonism between love of animals and meat consumption is another typically German issue that affects children’s imagination. Looking at the action-desire there is a large number of girls whose imaginations revolve around acting independently. One of the regional tendencies that came out is that horses offer suitable symbolic material for children from northern parts of Germany whereas in the south queens, princesses and castles have a much stronger presence.

B. Cross-generational comparison of children’s imaginations

A second project part deals with a cross-generational comparison of children’s imaginations and their media references. Cooperation partners of this project are:

Prof. Dr. Lothas Mikos and Dr. Elisabeth Prommer, Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen “Konrad Wolf”, Potsdam

First, biographical interviews with 20 young adults about their childhood imaginations and their media references were conducted. A second reference comes from 21 adults who grew up in the Third Reich, during the Second World War or in the post-war period – mostly without television. It is a special sample: the “influential professionals of German children’s television in the 50s, 60s and 70s” who were interviewed about their childhood. It became evident that – caution is recommended due to the differing methods of collecting data – especially the action-desires manifested in the “big daydream” were very similar.

Even with those growing up in totally different conditions, the imaginations of some revolved around experiencing harmony or suspense; standing out; being connected with others; protecting and being protected or acting independently. However, there is also the desire to gain more knowledge, which does not define toady’s children’s imaginations to such an extent.

The worlds the adults and children imagined themselves into were also similar. Differences appeared in reference to their life-worlds. Part or starting point of imaginations is a strongly felt deficit (food, education, own living space etc.). In the children’s imaginations in the Nazi period, during the war or in the post-war period media traces are rather implicit. If possible, the interviewees liked to use mass media, especially radio, cinema and books. However, they often cannot remember direct references to their imagined worlds, but do remember the significance of being pedagogically “un-protected” at times, in which experience of nature played a much bigger (at time also life-threatening) role. Accordingly, the action desires “to experience thrill” or “to make oneself special” connected to actual nature experiences. With today’s children the media-influenced worlds prevail.
Given the dissimilarities and methodical limitations, it nevertheless becomes clear how children use the cultural material for their imagination as appropriate. Individual experience, self image, social context, but also social interpretive patterns, like i.e. the ideology of National Socialism or values of the German Democratic Republic’s socialism, do enter the children’s “inner images”.

C. Creative visions of the influential professionals of German children’s television

Imaginations are not only important for children. Also in the editing offices of children’s television imaginations can be revealing. A third study’s focus lies here. The creative visions of editors, hopes of what they would create in life, were analysed in relation to their own childhood dreams through interviews with altogether 38 “influential professionals” of German children’s television. The ideals of the largest group of “influential professionals” were directed towards knowledge transfer, meaning cognitive as well as social knowledge, and the passing on of values.

Children’s television should communicate a view on, an understanding of and knowledge about the world, cognitively as well as socially. Others focus on specific childhood problems that they like to tell in order to support children to “sail around the rocks of everyday life” (Elmar Lorey). The tenor of children’s television should be, to take the children serious, to accept them in their diversity and to give them hope (Wolfgang Buresch). Dieter Saldecki points out that childhood is marked by a very own experience-world which children’s television should take up and reflect. The creator of the popular German “Program with the Mouse”, Gert Müntefering, points out that childhood should neither be portrayed as problematic, nor be idealized.

In their professional lives the editors incorporate their childhood memories – some, especially from the early children’s television, did so quite concrete, wishing to convey values to children in children’s television that they had been passed on to themselves (i.e. values conveyed by their mothers like tidiness and punctuality). For the majority of the program makers this relation between their own childhood and creative vision is to be understood as structural. Thus, they tried to save the children from experiences they themselves perceived as negative. Children’s television should give the children what the program makers had missed: reliability, support in finding their own way, acknowledgement of diversity and emotions, but also knowledge and a view of the world. In their creative vision, other editors subjectively draw from the experiences they perceived as positive and try to offer wide ranges of experience that can be considered pedagogically unsupervised and which they found helpful for themselves.

D. Pedagogical Evaluation: Does Television help or hinder the imagination?

Children have rich fantasy worlds (today as well). They express them for the most part with noticeable media traces, but partially without them. Hereby television is the central medium, tending to be stronger and clearer in the articulation and expression of boys than those of girls. It is known from research on imagination that there needs to be space for the children’s imagination to flourish and that they need material that supports these imaginations. Lack of idols that can live their imaginations and especially negative feedback on the imaginations curtail any imaginative activity. Against this background one can evaluate the impact of television on the imagination of children.

Television can serve as material for imagination
Television’s easy accessibility, visual nature and condensed stories offer wide ranges of imaginations and experiences and can prompt communication. Therefore, television that responds to the issues, experiences and patterns of appropriation of the children is actually suited to offer space for imagination. Television can help children to understand themselves and to actively appropriate the world.

Television as accessible material nevertheless carries interpretive patterns and creates (buying) desires
However, it also delivers interpretive patterns, i.e. values, gender roles and ideas about other countries that are not always appropriate for children and their circumstances and future. Especially the commercial networks’ programs are tightly connected to advertising and licensed markets. Since advertising also partially finds its way into the “big daydreams” (i.e. Disneyland Paris) there is the potential danger to look at children as mere consumers.

Constant television consumption can limit imaginations
At the same time television is an intense experience. Exactly the space necessary for developing and continuing imaginations is threatened by constant reception of this intense and stimulating medium.

The social environment of the children can limit their imagination through negative feedback
If children express their imaginations in everyday life through the symbolical material of their culture – and television is part of that – they often receive negative feedback from parents and educators. This limits their imaginative activity, the more so as there are rarely positive role models, not only with regard to competent use of television but also living the own imaginations.


For many children growing up today, television is part of their imagined worlds. The make-believe worlds they create and the position and power that they imagine themselves to have there, are very similar across cultures. Information from television, media characters, media settings or even complete plots become part of their imagination. The cross-generational comparison showed that the children who grew up without television, imagined very similar action desires and worlds, but with different material (i.e. ideologies from National Socialism or GDR Socialism). For all interviewees it is their own stories with which they deal with and interpret their own issues and experiences. For children who are eight or nine years old in 2001, television plays a prominent role. (Children’s) Television could foster imaginations, if it acknowledges children in their diversity, with their experiences and patterns of appropriation and offers them space for imagination. Regarding the content, television limits imagination where it offers values and interpretive patterns contrary to the children’s interests. In the children’s everyday life the imagination is also limited by negative feedback on their imaginations and through a long time of watching television. Insofar the conclusion does not reflect cultural pessimism, but it is not uncritical: Television does have an impact on children’s imagination that should not be underestimated. It could stir the imagination, if children and parents dealt with the contents, the viewing time or the conversations containing media traces in a media-savvy way – and if producers are aware of their responsibility, don’t use children, try to help them grow and take them seriously as those who are our present and will shape our future. In this sense, it should be the aim to offer room for imagination and not to close it.

Publication: Media and the Make-Believe Worlds of Children