Healthy Kids    

Imaginary friends are more than just playmates

They can actually help your child in their development

Imaginary friends are more than just playmates


In childhood, especially the pre-school years, fantasy play helps children practice and strengthen their newly acquired skills and ways of thinking about the world. This pretend play allows a child to “exercise” the mental images and concepts they are thinking about without needing to have the actual objects within view or reach.

Pretend play allows a child to act out events both real and imagined that they have internalized, in what the famous cognitive child psychologist Jean Piaget called “schemas.” Schemas are systematic mental structures that help a child organize and make sense of their experiences and, ultimately, the world.

Most parents’ find their child’s make believe play delightful to watch and listen to.

However, there is one aspect of make believe play, creating imaginary playmates, that some parents find somewhat disquieting, even alarming. These parents are concerned that this may indicate a severe psychological disorder (talking to someone who isn’t there) or is a sign of maladjustment, lack of stimulation in the child’s life, a socialization problem or just loneliness. They are concerned that their child might end up like Elwood P. Dowd, the character who had a six-foot rabbit as a friend in the classic film “Harvey” starring James Stewart.

According to current research, these ideas and concerns seem to be archaic views that have no basis in fact for most children. Rather, the opposite is true. The authors of What to Expect During the Toddler Years state that 75 percent of all children have an imaginary playmate at some point in childhood.

Sigmund Freud had a very negative view of imaginary playmates, stating that they were a means by which children compensated for an unhappy, disturbed or lonely childhood. We know that over the years many of Freud’s “truths” about children have not stood up to the scrutiny of scientific research. Interestingly, current research shows that imaginary play is more common among children whose physical and psychological needs are well satisfied. So much for Dr. Freud!

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.