Imaginary friends are good

Parents, don't worry: imaginary friends are good for children's language skills and may also benefit their performance at school, according to a New Zealand study.

The study, by University of Otago associate professor Elaine Reese and researcher Gabriel Trionfi, investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5-1/2, of whom 23 had imaginary, or invisible, friends.

The researchers found that the children who played with these make-believe companions had more advanced narrative skills than children who did not engage in this type of play.

"Because children's storytelling skills are a strong predictor of their later reading skill, these differences may even have positive spinoffs for children's academic performance," Reese said in a statement on the university's website.

The children's language skills were assessed by measuring their vocabulary and their ability to retell a fictional story to a puppet, and then a realistic tale based on an outing or family event.

While children were not found to differ in their vocabulary levels, those with invisible companions told higher-quality stories, both about fictional and real events.

"Most importantly, the children with imaginary friends tailored their stories to the task. For fictional stories, they included more dialogue. For realistic stories, they provided more information about time and place compared to children without imaginary friends," Reese explained.

This storytelling advantage was apparent for children with imaginary friends regardless of their birth order, she says.

"We believe that children with imaginary friends may be getting extra practice at telling stories. First, they may be creating stories with their imaginary friends. Second, because their friends are invisible, children may recount their escapades to interested adults," Reese added.

The study was published in the recent issue of the journal Child Development.

Does your child have an imaginary friend? Can you see a difference?
We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24