Marjorie Taylor is a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert on imaginary friends. She read my August 27 post at the blog Daddy Dialectic on my son’s imaginary characters, in which I describe how he adopts roles that range from Frank Lloyd Wright to Spider-Man to the Wicked Witch of the West.
“Mostly what your son is doing is not having an imaginary friend,” she told me in an interview. “It’s having a pretend identity. There’s usually a gender difference there. Boys and girls are similar in that they create imaginary characters, but there is a gender difference in what they tend to do with those characters. So, the little boys tend to put on superhero capes and run around. They take on the characteristics of the character and act it out. Whereas little girls, at least during the preschool period, are more likely to invent this other person that they’re interacting with. By the time they get to be about seven or eight, though, little boys are just as likely as little girls to have an imaginary friend rather than a pretend identity.”
Taylor’s research into imagination and pretend play is fascinating–and I found that it illuminated quite a lot about my son’s behavior and propensities. Liko–who has imaginary friends as well as pretend identities–is a very sociable, verbal, empathic little boy who is prone to flights of elaborate fantasy. (Incidentally, in the photo above, Liko is pretending to be a fireman in a real-life fire engine.) In her research, Taylor has found a strong correlation between those qualities and the prevalence of imaginary companions.
“Children who have imaginary friends are better able to take the perspective of another person,” she said. “We’ve been able to show that in our work.” But she cautions us against believing that one causes the other: researchers still don’t know if empathic instincts cause kids to make up imaginary friends or if imaginary friends help kids to learn to take another person’s perspective.
Reprinted with the permission of the Greater Good Science Center.
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