Imaginary Friends

Did you have an imaginary friend as a child?  If you did, chances are you’re more creative than those of us who didn’t.

So says Evan Kidd, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the ANU.  He spoke on this topic at the TEDx Sydney event last month.  Most of you would know about TED, the US-based enterprise devoted to the propagation of ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’.  For the last three years, an independently organised TED event, a TEDx (‘a TED-like experiences at a local level’), has been held in Sydney, featuring Australians from all walks of life with something interesting to say.

Evan Kidd’s talk focused on the importance of play to children and how the existence of imaginary friends, in particular, is beneficial to children in several ways.

Firstly, children with imaginative friends have more advanced ‘theory of mind’ skills, which means they can understand another person’s perspective more easily.  This, in turn, allows them to engage in role-play and characterisation; allows them to begin ‘taking the real and the possibly mundane and twisting it to yield new perspectives on objects, people and events’.  This bodes well for their future in terms of creativity and even acting abilities (actors, too, have advanced ‘theory of mind’ skills).

The second advantage is that children with imaginary friends can develop more complex spoken narratives; they are better storytellers.  It is the engaging in pretend or fantasy play that gives them this advantage.

Even without the existence of imaginary friends, though, we can still encourage creativity in our children.  Kidd’s main message was that PLAY MATTERS; that free play is so important in developing creativity in children.  He also warned that play is not always valued highly enough in our mainstream education system.

It’s true that in our society, much emphasis is placed on academic achievement.  Even childcare centres are now called ‘Early Learning Centres’ —which, incidentally, always made me feel as though my children were missing out because I didn’t send them to one.  Thankfully, when they finally did escape my clutches and ran off to kindergarten, they didn’t seem to be ‘behind’ the other kids, either academically or socially.

Our schools are largely judged now on how highly their students score in standardised testing, such as NAPLAN, introduced to Australian schools in 2008.  This raises the possibility that other important strengths a school may have, such as a good arts programs, are not being taken into account so much by prospective parents.

One of the tests that Kidd carried out to measure children’s creativity focused on two groups of kindergarten children: those who attended a ‘play-based’ school and those at mainstream schools.  Over the course of a year, the children at the play-based schools showed higher gains not only in their play skills but also their narrative language skills.

So what are play-based schools?  In Australia, the Steiner schools represent such a system.  They have a strong focus on free, creative play.  They do not commence formal instruction in reading and writing until the child is around 7 years of age.  Though this appeals to me in many ways, and I did go along to several of the open days at the Steiner school in Weston (Orana), ultimately I couldn’t commit.  In my gut I felt it was too big a risk to my children’s education, too isolated from the mainstream community I live in and perhaps, dare I say it, just a little bit too hippy.  I know several families with children at Orana, though, who are very happy.

Even accepting Kidd’s mantra that ‘play matters,’ I still find myself prone to panic attacks about my kids ‘getting ahead’.  My youngest child attends one of two kindergarten classes at his school.  Friends I know with children in the other class were recently asked to come in and help with literacy and numeracy activities during the week.  Our class was not asked.

I offered to help in my child’s class anyway, but when I turned up, two week running, all we did was painting and Lego.  On the third occasion, we made a rainbow cake.  The classroom is also well stocked with dolls, pretend cooking items and other toys that I recognise from my child’s time at Preschool, but have not before seen in a kindy room.

What was going on?  Had my son been placed in the remedial class and no one told me?  Is it because I didn’t send him to an Early Learning Centre?

After my panic subsided, I reasoned that of course his class was engaged in literacy and numeracy activities at other times, but that for whatever reason the teacher hadn’t sought parental help for this.  As I reflected on the quality of education that my little boy is receiving, I asked myself some important questions:

–       is he happy?  yes 

–       is he engaged in class activities?  yes (he is now obsessed with Lego!)

–       is he making friends and learning to communicate well with others?  yes.

He is also learning to read and write.  But, in short, I’m not so concerned about his academic progress at this early stage, so much as his general integration into the rigours of school life and whether he is starting to develop a love of learning.  And I know I can help in this area, too, by showing interest in his schooling and by following up at home with activities like reading together and incorporating maths into everyday occasions, such as cooking.  I do worry about his creativity, though, as he never did have an imaginary friend.  Maybe I’ll enrol him in acting classes.

My daughter, on the other hand, did have an imaginary friend—called Mema.  The whole affair was sort of sweet, but sort of creepy, too.  Once Mema participated in a board game—and won, even though she joined the game late!  Of course, my daughter was moving the piece for her ‘friend’ but, playing by the rules, Mema still managed to beat us all.  It brought to my mind séances and Ouija boards.

My daughter doesn’t mention her imaginary friend much now that she is a bit older (8), but just today she phoned Mema, who is holidaying in France, and asked her to bring back a souvenir.  Unfortunately Mema informed my child that she had no more room in her luggage, having just bought a parrot.

Does (or did) your child have an imaginary friend?  Do you think it has contributed to their creativity?  And have they used their friend’s powers for good or evil?  I’ve heard that some children blame their imaginary friends for things they themselves have done, to avoid punishment.  Or perhaps the roles are reversed, as in Drop Dead Fred, where the imaginary friend causes the mayhem and then blames the child!

(by the way, a couple of years ago I heard a rumour that a re-make of Drop Dead Fred was in the pipeline, starring Russell Brand as Fred.  Perhaps our Movie Guru, Ros Hull, can elucidate?)

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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