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Having a "Hobbes" leads to richer language skills

Students walking through the Quadrangle

Thursday 6 August 2009 3:25pm

Children's interaction with imaginary friends appears to play a positive role in their language development, according to new research that adds to the growing body of evidence that having such companions can be developmentally beneficial.

In a study appearing in the latest issue of the journal Child Development, Associate Professor Elaine Reese of the University of Otago, New Zealand and her former Clark University student Dr Gabriel Trionfi investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5-1/2, of whom 23 had imaginary friends.

The researchers found that the 13 girls and 10 boys who currently or previously engaged in imaginary companion play had more advanced narrative skills than children who did not engage in this type of play.

"Because children's storytelling skills are a strong predictor of their later reading skill, these differences may even have positive spinoffs for children's academic performance," Associate Professor Reese says.

The researchers assessed the children's language skills in several ways. First, they measured the children's vocabulary levels. They then asked them to tell two types of stories, one fictional and the other realistic.

In the fictional storytelling task, the children were read a dialogue-heavy book and then asked to retell the story to a puppet. The stories were scored for both recall and quality of the story, including whether they mentioned character's names and used dialogue.

In the realistic storytelling task, children were asked to talk about a recent outing, such as a trip to the beach. Again, the stories were scored on recall and quality indicators such as information about time and place.

While children were not found to differ in their sheer vocabulary levels, those with invisible companions told higher-quality stories, both about fictional and real events.

"Most importantly, the children with imaginary friends tailored their stories to the task. For fictional stories, they included more dialogue. For realistic stories, they provided more information about time and place compared to children without imaginary friends," says Associate Professor Reese.

This storytelling advantage was apparent for children with imaginary friends regardless of their birth order, she says.

"We believe that children with imaginary friends may be getting extra practice at telling stories. First, they may be creating stories with their imaginary friends. Second, because their friends are invisible, children may recount their escapades to interested adults," says Associate Professor Reese.

The study was supported by the Marsden Fund of New Zealand.

For more information, please contact

Associate Professor Elaine Reese
Department of Psychology
University of Otago

NB Associate Professor Reese is currently in Chile, which is 16 hours behind New Zealand Time.

Dr Gabriel Trionfi
(location: California, USA)

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