Imaginary playmates have fascinated psychologists, parents, and teachers for many years. Although psychologists have been writing about imaginary playmates since the late 1800s, only a handful of articles and book chapters exist on this topic, with only a few of those empirically based. Some experts think that children with imaginary playmates are likely to be between the ages of three and six, be of at least average intelligence, possess good verbal skills, be characterized as creative and cooperative with adults, and be an only child. They also tend to come from families that value active rather than passive behavior and who watch less television than their peers. Imaginary playmates are drawn from television, stories, or real people, or can also be original characters developed by the child.
Having an imaginary playmate is typically assumed to have a positive effect on children's social and cognitive development. Contributions to social development are thought to include increased opportunities for practicing positive social skills, taking another's perspective, and experimenting with relationships. The assumed cognitive benefits associated with having an imaginary playmate include the ability to engage in creative and original thought, as well as to use abstract reasoning skills. In a 1992 article, however, S. Harter and Christine Chao reported that children with imaginary playmates were rated as less competent in cognitive, physical, and social skills than their peers who did not have imaginary playmates, though the researchers cautioned that these findings had to be replicated before they could be viewed with confidence.
There are significant differences in reported prevalence rates. Older studies found that about 15 percent to 30 percent of preschool children had an imaginary friend, whereas Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer found in 1990 that 65 percent of the young children had an imaginary playmate.
Regarding gender differences, in one study boys tended to have imaginary friends who were more competent than they were and girls tended to have imaginary friends that were less competent (Harter and Chao 1992). Another study found that while the majority of both boys and girls had same-sex imaginary friends, more girls than boys had friends of the opposite gender, and boys had more nonhuman imaginary friends than girls did (Manosevitz, Prentice, and Wilson 1973).
Clearly more research is needed in order to understand the characteristics of the children who develop an imaginary playmate, the benefits associated with having an imaginary playmate both long- and short-term, and the role of adults in supporting social and cognitive development through interactions related to the imaginary playmate.
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