Monday, December 6, 2004

American children haven’t been entirely consumed by TV and commercial fare.

Two-thirds of them have had imaginary playmates “in a fantastic variety of guises,” according to a joint study from Washington University and the University of Oregon released yesterday.

The fantasy pals included a squirrel, a panther, a dog, a 7-inch-tall elephant and a “100-year-old” GI Joe doll — as well as “invisible” boys or girls or sympathetic stuffed animals. Some children socialized with more than a dozen imaginary companions.

The researchers found that 57 percent of the childhood chums were human and 41 percent were animals — including one “human capable of transforming herself into any animal the child wanted,” according to the study.

Almost all youngsters like to pretend they are someone — or something — else. The study found that almost all of them had pretended to be an animal or another person.

Never fear, it’s all normal, said Stephanie Carlson, a Washington University psychologist and lead author of the study.

“It’s somewhat of a revolving door. Children are nimble in coming up with these imaginary companions, and sometimes we have a hard time keeping up with all of the ones a child has,” she said.

The research was based on two sets of interviews with 152 children — when they were age 3 or 4 and at age 7.

The younger ones preferred the more substantial pal: Fifty-two percent of the preschoolers based their imaginary friends on “props,” such as toys, while more than two-thirds of those created by school-age children were “invisible.”

There’s not much of a sex difference. Although preschool girls were more likely to have an imaginary companion, by age 7 boys were just as likely as girls to have one. More than a quarter of the children described an imaginary friend unknown to their parents.

Not all the pals are friendly. Some were described as “quite uncontrollable and some were a nuisance,” researchers said.

The fantasy population can be fleeting, though.

“Imaginary companions are treated by children much in the same way as when they lose interest in toys or other activities,” Ms. Carlson said. “In many cases they simply go away, or children don’t remember. Other times children replace an old imaginary companion with a new one, or they go on to friendships with real kids.”

Imaginary playmates have their own official function in childhood development, she said, allowing children to manage social challenges in a safe context. Some children actually practice “how to handle conflict with something that may or may not talk back to them,” the study notes.

“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,” Ms. Carlson said. “But this study shows that nearly two-thirds of children have them. The striking fact is that children of all personality styles have imaginary companions.”

The study was published in the current issue of Developmental Psychology, an American Psychological Association publication.

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