Healthy Kids    

Worried about your child's imaginary pal?



Relax! These playmates can be beneficial to young children

Imaginary playmates shouldn’t be a source of concern for parents, as these make-believe friends who may take the form of a character on TV, someone from a book your child has read or from your child’s imagination, appear to serve many useful purposes for your growing child.

Imaginary playmates allow a child to try out different ways of engaging in or practicing a particular social relationship. It’s not surprising that preschoolers who spend more time at “sociodramatic” play have been rated as more socially competent by their pre-school teachers. These imaginary playmates allow a child to explore issues of discipline and power, and give them control without the potential anxiety associated with confronting these issues in “real life”.

Having an imaginary playmate can also help a child alleviate stress, acting as a confidant for the child, sharing their secrets and dropping in only sporadically when the child needs them. Imaginary friends serve as a rehearsal for our real life friends, which enhances language skills as well.

Children may be overheard scolding imaginary playmates and having their own small morality play in which they may be acting out the roles of mommy or daddy. The scenarios your child is creating may be their imaginative ways of helping them understand the concepts of right and wrong, family dynamics, issues of authority, and rewards and punishments.

Many studies suggest that make-believe play and interacting with imaginary playmates strengthens a wide variety of mental abilities in children, including sustained attention, memory, logical reasoning, language and literacy skills, imagination, creativity and the ability to reflect on one’s own thinking.

Children also begin to develop empathy, taking another child’s or adult’s perspective. It’s no wonder that children who make up these special friends with human-like qualities show more advanced and complex pretend play and more sociability and independence than their same-age peers.

Imaginary playmates are associated with other characteristics as well. In one study with 150 three- and four-year-olds, approximately half of which had imaginary playmates, it was found that the children with imaginary playmates watched less television (and when they did selected less violent ones), smiled more, were less aggressive, less bored and had more advanced language development.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He is available for group speaking engagements. Email him at editor@excitingread.com.