It’s not uncommon for preschool aged children to have imaginary playmates. This can be a normal component of healthy social and emotional development. In fact, by age 7, about 37% of children create an imaginary friend, according to Marjorie Taylor and her colleagues at the University of Oregon.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, some children have a single make-believe companion for as long as six months; some change pretend playmates every day, while still others never have one at all or prefer imaginary animals instead.
Fantasy play with imaginary friends helps children to feel safe, provides someone with whom they can comfortably share fears with and allows children to explore adult behaviors and roles, such as going to work or being “in-charge.” It also allows children to test out what happens when they break the rules and how they may respond to different social situations. For example, if a child engages in an unacceptable behavior, like throwing her food on the floor, she may blame the imaginary friend to see what happens.
Children with imaginary friends tend to be more imaginative, have a richer vocabulary, are better at entertaining themselves and tend to get along better with classmates. Through their interactions with an imaginary friend, children can even develop their reasoning and cognitive skills, since they are in charge of both sides of the interaction.