Imagination is alive and thriving in the minds of Americas school-age children. It is so prevalent that 65 percent of children report that, by the age of 7, they have had an imaginary companion at some point in their lives, according to a new study by University of Washington and University of Oregon psychologists.
The research also indicates that having an imaginary companion is at least as common among school-age children as it is among preschoolers. Thirty-one percent of the school-age youngsters were playing with an imaginary companion when they were asked about such activity, compared with 28 percent of preschoolers. "This finding is fascinating in that it goes against so many theories of middle childhood, such as those proposed by Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget. Having an imaginary companion is normal for school-age children," said Stephanie Carlson, a UW assistant psychology professor.
Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, and Carlson are the lead authors of the study published in the current issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
The researchers also were curious to know why children stop playing with imaginary friends. "Imaginary companions are treated by children much in the same way as when they lose interest in toys or other activities," said Carlson. "In many cases they simply go away, or children dont remember. Other times children replace an old imaginary companion with a new one, or they go on to friendships with real kids to meet some of the same needs."
The researchers also looked at childhood impersonation – pretending to be an imaginary character – and found it to be almost universal. Virtually all preschoolers pretended to be an animal or another person and 95 percent of the school-age children engaged in impersonation. The researchers did not look at impersonation in the same detail as they did imaginary companions, and were surprised that so many school-age children continued to engage in the activity. One tantalizing finding was that school-age children who did little or no impersonation scored low on emotional understanding of other people, according to Carlson.
She said that fantasy – interacting with imaginary friends and impersonation – plays a role in child development, both cognitively and emotionally. This kind of activity allows children to manage social situations in a safe context, such as practicing how to handle conflict with something that may or may not talk back to them. Cognitively it helps them deal with abstract symbols and thought, which leads them to abstract thought about their own identity.
"Imaginary companions have had a bad rap from psychologists for a long time, and there was the perception that parents were getting the message that having an imaginary companion wasnt healthy," she said. "But this study shows that nearly two-thirds of children have them and the striking fact is that children of all personality styles have imaginary companions."
The University of Oregon funded the research. Co-authors of the study are former University of Oregon students Bayta Maring, Lynn Gerow and Carolyn Charley.
Joel Schwarz | EurekAlert!
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