School-age children are as likely to play with imaginary friends as preschoolers are, according to a study in the November issue of Developmental Psychology (Vol. 40, No. 6).
The study, by University of Oregon psychologist Marjorie Taylor, PhD, and her colleagues, refutes the conventional wisdom that preschool is the peak time for all kinds of imaginative play, including playing with imaginary companions.
The study was a follow-up to a 1997 study in which the researchers interviewed 152 3- and 4-year-olds, and the children's parents, and found that 28 percent of the children played with an imaginary friend. The goal of the current study, Taylor says, was to talk to those same children three years later to find out what had happened to those imaginary companions and learn whether the children had created new ones.
She and her colleagues expected to find that the overall number of imaginary friends had decreased. Instead, they found that of the 100 children who took part in the follow-up, 31 percent had an imaginary friend at age 6 or 7.
"We were definitely surprised," Taylor says.
The researchers did, however, find some differences between the children at age 3 or 4 and at age 6 or 7. First, only three out of the 100 children were playing with the same imaginary friend that they had three years earlier.
Also, in the first study there was a significant gender gap--girls were more likely to have imaginary friends than were boys. By the second study that gap disappeared. In the first study, the children were more likely to have an imaginary friend based on a physical object like a favorite stuffed animal, but by the second study they were more likely to have a purely imaginary companion. In the first study, parents were more likely to know that their child played with an imaginary companion than they were in the second study.
The researchers also investigated whether there were differences between the children who had imaginary friends and those who didn't. They tested the children for various types of social understanding, emotional understanding and personality, and found very few differences.
Taylor says the new findings are consistent with her idea that fantasy and imaginary others play an important role throughout people's lives--from childhood into adulthood. In fact, she and her colleagues are now talking to fiction writers about their relationships with the characters in their books, which Taylor believes may be analogous in some ways to children's relationships with imaginary friends.
"Sometimes people believe that if children, particularly older children, have an imaginary friend then it means there's something wrong--like the child is shy and doesn't have any 'real friends,'" Taylor says. "But really, it's quite normative to have an imaginary friend."