Nearly two-thirds of children have had an imaginary friend (search) by the time they reach age 7, and new research suggests that children don’t tend to give up these imaginary playmates as soon as previously thought.

Although researchers have long suspected that preschool children give up their imaginary friends once they start school, their study showed that school-age children play with imaginary friends just as much as preschoolers.

They found 31 percent of school-age children said they were playing with an imaginary friend compared with 28 percent of preschoolers.

“Imaginary companions have had a bad rap from psychologists for a long time, and there was the perception that parents were getting the message that having an imaginary companion wasn’t healthy,” says researcher Stephanie Carlson, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, in a news release. “But this study shows that nearly two-thirds of children have them, and the striking fact is that children of all personality styles have imaginary companions.”

Researchers say playing with an imaginary friend is a form of fantasy and plays a role in child development, helping children learn to think and deal with emotions. This kind of activity allows them to manage social situations, such as conflict, in a safe context with something that may or may not talk back to them. It also teaches them about abstract symbols and thought.

Imaginary Friends Common

In the study, which appears in the November issue of Developmental Psychology, researchers interviewed 152 preschoolers, ages 3 and 4, and their parents several years ago. Each child and their parents were interviewed separately about imaginary friends.

Three years later, as the children entered school, 100 of these children and their parents were interviewed and assessed again. By the time they reached age 7, 65 percent of the children said they had an imaginary friend at some point in their lives.

The children were considered to have imaginary friends if the child said they had one and could provide a description of it. Descriptions of imaginary friends ranged from invisible boys and girls to a squirrel, a panther, and a 7 inch-tall elephant.

Researchers found most imaginary friends played with by older children were invisible, but about half of younger children play with imaginary friends that were based on props, such as special toys.

Other findings include:

Preschool girls were more likely to have imaginary friends, but by age 7 boys were just as likely to have one. Twenty-seven percent of the children described an imaginary friend that their parents didn’t know about. Not all imaginary friends were friendly. Some were described as quite uncontrollable and a nuisance.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Taylor, M. Developmental Psychology, November 2004; vol 40: pp 1173–1187. News release, University of Washington.