Photo by Tina Floersch.
Elfie Welfie is a miniature veterinarian with tie-dyed hair. Dipper is a flying dolphin that lives on a star. Bob is a bug-eating boy who can speed-read. What do these outlandish characters share in common? They were all, at some point, the imaginary friends of real children.
Make-believe mates such as these were long a cause for concern among parents, who worried that something was wrong with their child, socially or psychologically. However, a wealth of research gathered over recent decades has proven that this is not the case. Studies have found that these children—in contrast to their imaginary-friendless peers—tend to have better social skills, show great resilience, and have just as many real friends as other kids. They’re also more creative.
“It’s not so bizarre to have an imaginary friend; it’s actually fairly normative,” says Dr. Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist and professor emerita at the University of Oregon who has researched the topic in depth. Indeed, Taylor’s studies suggest that some 37 percent of children have imaginary friends by the age of seven. They often begin to appear around the age of four, are quite common still by age seven, and largely drop off by age 12. “They last longer than you’d think,” she offers.
Psychologists have agreed on the term “elaborated role play” to encompass the ways in which kids interact with imaginary friends. Defined as “pretending in which children imagine and act out the part of another individual on a regular basis,” it can also refer to personified objects (when a child develops a persona for a doll, toy, or other inanimate object), or pretend identities (when a child makes up a person that they assume, often modeled after superheros or movie characters, like Batman or the Little Mermaid).
Taylor notes that confirming whether someone actually has imaginary friends is not easy, and requires interviews with both children and parents. “If you interview a child about imaginary friends, sometimes they just make one up on the spot,” she offers. In other cases they forget or ditch their invisible buddies and move on to new ones—just as they do with their favorite toys—even if “they had a thoroughly intense relationship with the imaginary friend.” She recalls one instance where a four-and-a-half-year-old boy had, for months, shared stories about Tippy and Tompy—blonde-haired, blue-eyed twins who were loyal companions. One day, when speaking with a new researcher, he refused to discuss the twins, and only stated that Tompy was “defective”; instead, the boy was keen to discuss Gadget, the small mouse sitting on his shoulder.
Given that imaginary friends are rather common, Taylor notes that for the most part, children that have them are not noticeably different from those that do not. But given their flair for crafting inventive personas and mind-bending backstories, researchers had long suspected that these children were highly creative.
Findings from a study in 1969 (which were more firmly supported in 2009), seemed to suggest that early forms of elaborated role play could be predictors of creativity later in adolescence; a 2005 study found a correlation between imaginary friends and creativity among fourth graders; and two separate studies in 2003 and 2009, focused on fiction writers and actors, respectively, found that a strong contingent among those adults had had imaginary friends as children.
Taylor’s 2014 study, conducted with Candice M. Mottweiler at the University of Oregon, again substantiated the link between imaginary play and creative traits. Among a group of four- and five-year-old boys and girls, those who engaged in some form of elaborated role play had higher creativity scores.
Prior to this, there was not significant evidence to prove that children with imaginary friends have heightened creativity, but those studies depended on the “unusual uses task,” Taylor notes. This widely used exercise to measure creativity asks participants to come up with various unique uses for everyday objects, like a brick. Taylor notes that the task is less useful among children, who have a more difficult time developing several examples, and often come up with bizarre ideas, rather than unique ones.
Instead, in the 2014 study, Taylor employed additional exercises. In one, children are asked to complete a story about two children who discover a magic key on a path; their responses are then rated (on a scale of one to five) by three adults. Children with imaginary friends developed story completions that earned higher ratings.
“It makes sense because having an imaginary friend is a very creative act,” Taylor offers. “It involves lots of imagination. A lot of kids really can visualize that friend, they can tell you about the friend, they get emotionally caught up and tell stories about the friend to their parents.” She emphasizes, however, that the type of creativity measured is focused on people and social interactions.
So how might a parent foster their child’s imaginary friend, and thus, their creativity?
“If you want to promote creativity and imagination in your children, you have to give them some unstructured time—time when it’s just up to them,” Taylor offers. “Be supportive, be interested in what they’re doing. If you sit kids in front of the television or another screen during downtime, that’s not going to promote having an imaginary friend.”
May 4–8, 2018, Park Avenue Armory