Our kids’ invisible friends and imaginary worlds open an amazing window into what they’re thinking and feeling
Calvin had Hobbes. Inside Out‘s Riley had Bing Bong. Those Pevensie siblings invented a whole world of imaginary friends inside the wardrobe we know as Narnia. Maybe you conjured up a pretend pal when you were a kid—or maybe there’s one living in your house right now.
Kids’ imaginary playmates take on a life of their own. They become constant companions and endless sources of amusement (or excuses). They get misplaced. They do naughty things. They sit in chairs we’re about to sit down in ourselves. But we can’t hear a word they’re saying.
No wonder we grownups who live alongside these “friends” sometimes worry a little: Encourage or discourage? Does having one mean our child is a loner or having trouble making real friends? Just how much are we supposed to go along, anyway?
First, some sigh-of-relief good news:
“In general, kids with imaginary playmates do the same or better as kids without them,” developmental psychologist Marjorie Taylor told me. Taylor works at the University of Oregon’s Imagination Research Lab and is one of the leading experts on children’s imaginary play.
Maybe what’s most amazing about imaginary friends is how widespread and varied they are—and how it’s a kind of play that stretches across childhood, from babyhood even into the tween years.
Let’s peek inside three different, but related, kinds of this play: attachment toys our kids treat like people, imaginary or invisible friends, and the imaginary worlds our kids invent that researchers like Taylor call paracosms.
ATTACHMENT TOYS OUR KIDS TREAT LIKE PEOPLE
Prime age: 18 to 36 months
Who has them—and how they play with them: As many as seven in 10 babies favor a special comfort toy or security blanket, beginning toward the end of the first year. At first, they serve as a mommy (or daddy) substitute, providing calm and comfort as our babies learn they’re separate people from us. But for some, these so-called transitional toys become something more.
“As they get older, some children attribute a personality to the object. They don’t just talk to it. They listen to it. It becomes more like an imaginary friend,” says Taylor, who’s also the author of Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.
Young kids treat only their attachment objects in this special way, adds researcher Nathalia Gjersoe of the U.K.’s Open University, Faculty of Education. Her research found that 3-year-olds treat comfort toys with faces (like a teddy bear) and even comfort blankets as having more human-like thoughts and feelings than other toys they own.
Her own childhood lovey, a teddy called Mr. T., is now living again as her toddler son’s favored comfort toy, she told me. “We might think of attachment objects as an imaginary friend with a physical prop,” Gjersoe says.Why they’re great for kids: Comfort toys build security and confidence. Children who view them as special friends with personalities also get companionship. And they show a developmental leap forward: the ability to take the perspective of another person and imagine his or her thoughts, feelings, and needs.
What you can do: Giving a particular toy at bedtime might help build a bond, Gjersoe says. You can’t pick what your baby will attach to or befriend, though. (I kept tucking an adorable blanket-doll that was a gift to my first daughter into her crib, but she ignored it. Years later, though, her younger sister latched onto Luffy—short for Love Toy—and it became her constant companion.)
Because you can waste a lot of time looking for a misplaced “love toy,” some experts suggest getting a duplicate as soon as you see an attachment brewing. Most kids won’t fall for this, research shows. Others—who are more involved with the character they’ve invented than the object itself—don’t seem to mind at all.
INVISIBLE FRIENDS AND OTHER IMAGINARY PLAYMATES
Prime age: From about age 2.5 to 6 (they often disappear by 7 but can sometimes last much longer)
Who has them—and how they play with them: About a third of kids up to age 7 have an invisible friend, Taylor says. Another third have an imaginary friend that’s also a physical object (like a comfort toy), she says. The kids who have them are slightly more often first-borns or only children, maybe because they provide companionship.
If those numbers seem high, it’s because imaginary playpals come in “infinite varieties,” Taylor told me. “It used to drive me crazy because I wanted to define what they’re typically like—but there’s no typical imaginary friend! I’ve heard of every kind of species, creature, shape, age, and personality. I could go in the lab tomorrow and hear one I’ve never heard before. They live in the trees, in the stars, under the table, on and on and on. One girl’s imaginary friends lived in her toes!”
Basically they vary as much as the children who invent them.
A popular variation among boys, for example, is having an imaginary identity. The boy “becomes” Batman or a character he invents for an extended period of time, beyond ordinary pretend play.
Why they’re great for kids: Kids with pretend friends aren’t loners, as many parents fear. Quite the opposite: Research shows that they’re very sociable; when nobody’s around to play with, they make someone up.
They’re also less shy, are able to focus well, and have no shortage of real friends. College students in another study who recalled having imaginary playmates were also less introverted, more dominant in face-to-face meetings, and more self confident than those who didn’t have one, she told me.
They’re also are more creative in some ways, though not always on standard creativity tests that measure things like how many unique uses a child can come up with for an object, such as a brick or a paper clip. But on creativity tests that involve a social element—completing a story or describing how the world would be different if, say, everyone had tails—the kids with imaginary friends score better.
“We tend to put creativity in a box, as something you have or don’t. But there are lots of different ways to be creative,” Taylor points out. “Some children see a vacuum cleaner as a monster. Some want to take it apart and put it back together.”
Often parents stress about negative themes in this kind of play: the bossy pretend friend, the one who won’t share, the friend who’s a shark with sharp teeth. In one study, about a third of invisible friends were disobedient, bossy, argumentative or unpredictable. Even their human inventors complained about them!
That’s how some kids work through real-life experiences—what happens when you break rules, for example—just as they do in all kinds of play. Invisible friends are sometimes helpless or screw-ups, for example, which makes their human feel more confident and capable. (“She doesn’t know her colors, so I have to tell her.”) Sometimes they’re more competent, becoming a powerful ally that boosts self esteem. (“He’s bigger and faster than me!”)
What you can do: Take cues from your child. If he or she is eager to talk about the friend, listen and ask questions. This can be really insightful when there’s something new going on—a new baby, starting a new school. Ask something like, “What does Chumley think about that?”
“Think of the imaginary companion as providing a window on your child’s thoughts and feelings,” Taylor says.
And sure, there’s no harm done by letting your child set a place at the table for the invisible mate or reserving it a special chair. That said, it’s also okay to set certain limits, especially those that are in line with teaching behavior: No, Zuzu can’t make Grandpa get up out of his chair. Taylor says even very young kids understand the difference between fantasy and reality and can skillfully negotiate between the two. (“They often pause,” Taylor told me, “to remind us during interviews that we know it’s all pretend, right?”)
Taylor advises stopping short of taking control of kids’ play. “Creative control over imaginary characters is a big part of the joy of it,” she adds.
Prime age: 8 to 12 (peaking around 9)
Who has them—and how they play with them: Some older kids invent an entire world for imaginary people or creatures to inhabit. They’re known as paracosms, worlds parallel to reality. One study of college students found that 12 percent remembered inventing them. But newer research suggests it might be more like nearly one in five.
World play can be amazingly elaborate, with lot of detail—about names, places, food rations, plot lines—that can be remembered for years, even into adulthood. Some research has suggested that it’s linked to giftedness, although Taylor hasn’t found any evidence of that.
What’s clear is that kids who come up with paracosms have vivid imaginations. They also seem to have good verbal and social skills. Some research shows that a large number of people in creative professions (theater, fiction, movies) invented paracosms as children. Maybe including J.R.R. Tolkien and Game of Thrones creator George Martin?
Why they’re great for kids: Though some world play is private, kids often build their fantastical worlds together. It’s a social platform, as it was for the children in C.S. Lewis’s classic Narnia stories. (Another famous example: the Brontë sisters, whose elaborate worlds of Gondol and Angria led to their later novels, some literary scholars say.)
Paracosms are also a way kids explore real-world interests (like geography, language) and creative activities (drawing, storytelling), found a 2015 study by Taylor and others in Creativity Research Journal. They invent rules and financial systems. They make flags. They write down histories.
Interesting side note: In that 2015 study, the girls developed fewer, more specific characters and personalities within the world. The boys had more—millions, sometimes—of more generic characters (like “soldier-cats”).
What you can do: Mostly, step out of the way. As with imaginary playmates, it’s fine to show an interest and ask questions if your child seems receptive. Build on an interest by supplying library books or other materials about subjects that seem related.
Prepare for rejection, though: One boy, Taylor told me, kept telling his parents an elaborate fantasy about Martians and Mars, so they began supplying factual info on the red planet. After listening patiently, he’d say, “Well, things are different on MY Mars!”
Imagination…to infinity and beyond!
Taylor has been interviewing kids about their imaginary companions for 20 years. She’s met Nutsy and Nutsy, Elfie Welfie, Barnaby, Nobby, Margarine, Bobo, Baintor, Pajama Sam, the inhabitants of Rho Tichris, Chapaki, and Slockland—and well, you get the picture. Her window into our kids’ imagination is more like a wide-screen multi-plex.
Over all that time, she’s seen toys we give our kids evolve and change. But play? Not so much.
“I’m not too worried about children’s imaginations,” says the woman who may have more of an inside track into what’s going on in there than any of us.
Hey, is that Hobbes and Bing Bong we hear cheering?