An invisible flying dolphin who lives on a star. A tiny, completely white figure, who lives in the light of lamps. An invisible 160-year-old business man. These are all examples of children’s imaginary friends.
Children’s use of fantasy is an important developmental stage, and they are often encouraged to engage with it in a variety of ways. Children’s story books, TV shows, films, and imaginative play can all draw on fantasy, giving children a high level of exposure to worlds of make-believe. Yet imaginary friends can sometimes cause parents to worry, as can the effects of high exposure to characters within video content, viewed sometimes as a limiting factor on the development of a child’s own imagination and creativity. Extensive research led by Dr Marjorie Taylor, Developmental Psychologist at the University of Oregon, helps to shed light on the phenomenon of imaginary companions (ICs) and finds that creative imagination in children is still strong.
Dr Taylor has outlined two types of ICs from her research: those that are invisible, and those that are formed with toys, where the child talks to and listens to what the toy has to say. Of the 341 descriptions of ICs collected in Dr Taylor’s research, 31% were special toys functioning as ICs, whilst the remainder were invisible ICs. The invisible ICs took a variety of forms, with ordinary children (27%), animals (19%) and magical children (17%) being the most frequent categories. However a wealth of diversity was found between these imaginary characters, and even though the children had typically been exposed to many characters in books, films and TV content, the majority displayed originality.
Findings reject the stereotype that a child who invents a friend is too shy or withdrawn; the children researched were observed as less shy and found social interaction particularly enjoyable. The majority of children also knew that their IC was not real, despite their attachment and absorption in the fantasy.
‘The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions’ are short videos illustrating Dr Taylor’s research. The use of imaginary friends as a tool when carrying out market research with children will be considered in a later blog.
The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions: Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 , Publication
Alice is a Research Executive at FK&Y with wide experience of running children’s surveys. She is interested in exploring new methods of carrying out research with children.