Part II: The science behind imaginary friends

For children, the line between reality and fantasy can sometimes become blurred, especially when it comes to imaginary friends. In this second episode of Science Friday’s series “The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,” developmental psychologist Jacqueline Woolley takes us into the lab to investigate whether a child’s orientation toward fantasy play is tied to real world creativity.


For children, the line between reality and fantasy can sometimes become blurred, especially when it comes to imaginary friends.

In this second episode of the Science Friday series, 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions,' developmental psychologist Jacqueline Woolley takes us into the lab to investigate whether a child's orientation toward fantasy play is tied to real-world creativity.

They come in all shapes, sizes...


He's big?

He's this big.

Children surprise us all the time with what they come up with.

[ Munching loudly ]

A shark?

This idea that something can be real and fantasy all at the same time, that's an amazing capacity.

The children that create imaginary companions are not typically quiet loners.

Yah! [ Laughs ]

They are less shy, so it's exactly the opposite of the stereotype.


And they also are very sociable.

They like people.

Plunk them down in a lab, and you'll find yourself captivated.



Does he like that?


That's his favorite thing to do.

Talking to a child about an imaginary companion, you have no idea what's gonna come out.


They can vary from being a giant penguin to a little speck of a little -- a fly on your shoulder.

And many are deeply bonded to their imaginary companions.

I was wondering about your fairy godmother.

What's that?

She's camouflaged in your dress?

What does your fairy godmother like to do?

She likes to play with you.

What does she like to play?

She does.

Bears? [ Laughs ]

[ Growling quietly ]



They love them.

I mean, that love is real.

It can be tricky to tell what kids think is real and what's pretend.

There's a lot for children to sort out, because we're constantly surrounding them with fantasy content.

We're telling them about fairies and elves, and sometimes we make a concerted effort to confuse children, like the Tooth Fairy.

And they have to learn about things from the past, like dinosaurs.

They have to figure out what used to be real but is no more, what's never been real.

From starships to Santa, you'd think kids might get lost in it all.

Yet the research of developmental psychologist Dr. Jacqueline Woolley suggests otherwise.

The traditional picture of kids is that they're confused about fantasy and reality.

What most people see is kids believing in Santa Claus and other fantasy figures, and so they kind of generalize from that and assume that children are confused about every aspect of fantasy and reality, and they're really not.

The vast majority of children tell us, 'This is pretend.'

'Yes, I love her, yes, she's wonderful.

She's pretend.'

They use a lot of the same cues that adults do to differentiate fantasy from reality from a pretty young age.

They distinguish reality from dreams.

They know the difference between imagining something and thinking it, for example, which is pretty sophisticated.

This is the age at which many children create imaginary companions, and even by 3 or 4, they know from the start that those beings aren't real.

But that doesn't mean that they're any less vulnerable to the emotional impact of fantasy, especially with their pretend companions.

One of the reasons that children sometimes create imaginary companions is to deal with an emotional issue that they're wrestling with at that point in time.

What do you like about your fairy godmother?

I can understand that.


And sometimes children get so wrapped up in their fantasies that they do sort of seem to lose track of what's real and what's not real.

The way that I think about it is, there's this kind of magical bubble in which the children and their imaginary companions live, and they know that the bubble exists, and they choose not to pop it.

Often, they even pull us into that bubble.

And one time, we gave the child a play phone and said, 'Why don't you phone him up and tell him to come to the lab?'

That was not a good idea because then we'd have to wait for the imaginary friend to show up.

'Is he here yet?

Is he here yet?'

I have a very deep fondness for a herd of cows.

They were little tiny cows, and they were different colors.

[ Mooing ]

And they were kind of like babies.

You know, feed them, change their diapers, that kind of stuff.

And the parents would have to tell babysitters, 'Just walk on tiptoe.

If you walk on tiptoe, then you won't step on the cows.

If you just walk regularly, then you might step on the invisible, colorful herd of cows.'

And as fun as it is to create whimsical or persuasive companions, many researchers see this type of play as a potential stepping stone in the life of a child.

The kind of mind that can reason about the past and think about the future is the kind of mind that can come up with an alternative and imagine things that don't exist.

So I think engaging in pretend and imagining kind of primes the pump to make people more creative.

And we're actually testing that in our lab right now.

We have an extensive interview to get at their fantasy orientation and to get at whether they have an imaginary companion or not.

Some children might fantasize about unicorns or monsters or flying.

Rar! Rar!


Others might be more grounded, playing house and becoming firemen.

Your daughter. Oh.

And then you have kids in the middle.

So maybe they imagine that they're a princess, or maybe they imagine that they're an astronaut.

So things that aren't impossible but they're unusual.

And we actually think that kids who engage in that type of imagination will perhaps perform on our creative problem solving tasks.

So, today, we're gonna play a couple of games, Weston.

You ready for the first game?


How do we play?

A little boy needs his teddy bear to go to sleep every night.

But Alex's brother put Alex's teddy bear way up there on that high shelf.

We look to see how many ways children come up with to help the little boy get his teddy bear.

Climb a broom.

Climb a broom. Okay.

A traditional way of measuring creativity is to see if children can come up with alternate uses for things.

He can knock it down with a yo-yo.

Intuitively, it makes sense that imagination would be linked to creativity.



But what were looking for is some actual hard evidence that it is true.

Creativity is just one facet of a child's development that might be connected to imaginary play.

When a child creates a relationship that is imaginary, there's only one person's ideas about relationships operating in that scenario, which means that you're getting access to a lot of what they know about relationships.

What can an imaginary companion reveal about a child's social or even cognitive development?

On the next episode of 'The Real Guide to Imaginary Companions.'