I’m fascinated. In researching for an annotated bibliography on games and play theory, I came across an article about the development of storytelling skills in very young children. The major focus of it is the effect that props have on the stories; children tend to tell better stories when they have figures in their hands than without, likely because they think more about characters than event sequences. But the really interesting part was where the researchers tested the effects of different kinds of figures.
Given a set of an adult male, an adult female, a boy, a girl, a baby, and a dog, most of the children (who were four years of age) told rambling non-stories where nothing actually happened. In those few instances where something happened, it was a lack/lack liquidated dyad, having to do with a breach of the natural order (e.g. an abandoned baby wandering around looking for parents to care for it). That was the first half of the experiment.
In the second half of the experiment, they replaced the dog with an alligator.
And you know what? The stories got better.
Seriously. The stories became structurally more complex, by a significant amount; stuff happened, instead of the four-year-old simply naming off who each figure was. Probably not coincidentally, villainy/villainy nullified also popped up far more frequently as a narrative dyad. Basically, it seems that children tell more interesting stories about things that aren’t normal (including things like the abandoned baby). In other words, to display my fantasy-writer chauvinism for a moment, normalcy is boring. Alligators are cool.
(The girls also performed statistically better than the boys, in terms of length, content, and complexity. Interesting.)
So the moral we should all take away from this is that when you buy small children toys, be sure to purchase them alligators and space-men and flying horses and dinosaurs along with the Barbies and the G.I. Joes. Their cognitive development will thank you.