It’s a sunny day at the park. Susan and her three-year-old daughter, Emily, are swinging happily, chatting about friends and the day’s preschool activities. “Mom, don’t forget to push Cartoons!” shouts Emily. Mom sidles up to the empty swing beside them and gives it a few good shoves. Cartoons is Emily’s baby sister. She lives in Alabama with her mom and dad and she likes stuffed animals and rattles. And she happens to be invisible.
Imaginary friends used to be a cause for concern, but research is finding that kids with elaborate tales of friends who aren’t really there are getting ahead in learning and social development. So what makes children who dream up pretend playmates so advanced?
In the days of Dr. Spock, imaginary friends were seen as a symptom of social problems. If your child was spending her time talking to thin air, prevailing wisdom said she probably needed more attention and company. Seen as a way to deal with loneliness, stress, or conflict, imaginary friends had a bad rep for most of the 20th century.
But the tables have turned, with psychologists touting pretend friends as boosters for language and social skills. Last year a study from La Trobe University in Melbourne found that three to six-year-olds with imaginary friends were more creative and socially advanced. Earlier studies had shown that kids with imaginary pals use more complex sentence structure, have richer vocabularies, and get along better with classmates.
The explanation? Kids who create a playmate get a chance to practice taking both sides of the conversation. They try on different roles, think abstractly, and conjure up original ideas. An elaborate fantasy world is like a test lab for some of the most important childhood skills.
The regions of the brain that make imaginary friends possible – among them the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe – start picking up signals around eighteen months of age, and they tap into some of our most advanced, higher-order thinking. When you hear your toddler make a choo choo noise with his train, this is your first clue that abstract thought has begun. It’s no coincidence that the birth of pretend play syncs up with children recognizing themselves in the mirror – these are skills that mean our little monkeys are becoming conscious beings.
In all the excitement over imaginary friends, though, the real message seems to have gotten lost. It’s not that made-up playmates are the key to success (no need to start nudging our kids to “get to work and make up an invisible friend”). What the results really suggest is that all pretend play is critical for brain development. When kids create worlds in their heads, they’re flexing vital regions of the brain, and if we want their imaginations to really run wild, kids need space and unhurried time. If they get it, the pay-off can be significant (The recent book Nurture Shock cites research demonstrating that kids in preschool programs that dedicate extended time to pretend play jumped miles ahead in school achievement).
So maybe we should go lighter on the music and ballet lessons. Kids get a lot of stimulation and encouragement to be competitive in school and in their interactions with other kids. Let’s make sure that they get the same support for directing their own play – whether it’s at the playground with an invisible sister from the South, or at imaginary tea parties or forts at home. Hang back and let them exercise their imaginations – and think of all the brainpower they’re building.