The Importance of Your Toddler’s Active (Imaginary) Social Life

. July 13, 2016.

As part of our nightly bedtime ritual, I lay in bed with my son and tell him stories- he chooses the topic. Not too long ago, he requested a story about “Whodo” and “Whodah”. I asked, “What are Whodo and Whodah? I can’t tell you a story about that unless I know what it is.” With a little prodding, my toddler revealed that Whodo and Whodah are little boys that play with him. When I asked more about them, he told me they are boys with red hair, and they are “little studs”. A night or two later, I discovered the existence of a third pretend playmate, named “Whydo.”

My son’s imagination sparked the recollection of my own imaginary friends. When I was around his age, 3, I had six of them. Intrigued by my son’s,  and recollections of my own, imaginary playmates, I delved further into the land of make-believe. Here’s what I found.

The Important Role of Imagination

Research indicates that an active imagination is a normal part of childhood from preschool and beyond. Almost all children play pretend games and interact with a stuffed animal or toy as if it were a person just like them; up to 37% of children take it a step further and invent imaginary friends.

Do children create imaginary playmates due to loneliness or social problems? Current research says no, not typically. In her book “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them,” Dr. Marjorie Taylor (Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon) investigates the role of imaginary companions during the preschool years. Based on a plethora of research in early child development, she writes, “…Fantasy play is an important component of children’s cognitive and emotional development…fun and companionship are the primary reasons most children create imaginary companions.”


Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Rebecca J Alperin, Ph.D. (left), of Psychological Resources, Ltd. in Toledo, elaborates, “Imagination actually helps children develop a sense of reality versus fantasy. Humans are, by nature, social creatures; part of childhood is learning how to manage that socialization. Imagination helps children develop thinking skills, (learn) how to process and solve problems, (utilize) communication skills, how to identify what makes them happy, sad, angry, or scared, and how to think creatively. Research has also shown that play and imagination help build and develop neurological connections and pathways. All of these things are important in helping children grow into healthy individuals.”

Mastering Emotional Intelligence

Dr. Taylor refers to the preschool years as “the high season of imaginative play,” stressing, “One of the special functions of pretend play is to help children control and master their emotions.”

Dr Alperin concurs, “Imaginary friends help children develop emotional and social abilities in a variety of ways. They can use imaginary friends as a way to deal with fears or worries (such as telling their parent the friend needs a night light because the friend is afraid of monsters under the bed). They use imaginary friends as a way to place blame on someone (such as telling their parents that the friend made a mess in the kitchen from eating cookies before bed).”

Imaginary friends can be a coping strategy when a child is going through something difficult. “Fantasy play or imaginary friends help children deal with their worries or fears by giving them a way to ‘act’ without verbalizing it… Play is a less threatening way to process worries such as fear of the dark, peer issues (e.g. bullying), and family changes (e.g. divorce or new babies),” Alperin says.

What Type of Child Creates an Imaginary Friend?

Dr. Taylor notes, “..Children who create imaginary friends are very social people who particularly enjoy interacting with others…When no one is around to play with, these children make someone up.”

Dr. Alperin adds, “There are other children who may be quiet and shy and thus use imaginary friends as a way to build self-confidence… There does not seem to be any specific trait of children who have imaginary friends. Children from all kinds of families, cultures, and ethnicities can develop imaginary friends.”

Can a child’s imaginary friend ever be cause for concern? “There are some children who may use an imaginary friend because they are lonely or extremely shy; if that is the case, those are issues that need to be addressed by the parent, teacher, or other professional,” Dr. Alperin recommends.

Baffled about how to handle an imaginary friend? Play along! In the majority of instances, parents can relax and have fun promoting their child’s active imagination. This is a truly magical time in your child’s life. Paying close attention when your child talks about her imaginary friend can give you unparalleled insight into her desires, fears, and interests.