August 12, 2009 / 9:32 AM / 10 years ago

Make-believe friends make kids' language skills better: study

WELLINGTON (Reuters Life!) - Parents, don’t worry: imaginary friends are good for children’s language skills and may also benefit their performance at school, according to a New Zealand study.

A girl writes on a chalk board during the opening of the elementary school year in the old center of Managua February 4, 2008. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

The study, by University of Otago associate professor Elaine Reese and researcher Gabriel Trionfi, investigated the language skills of 48 boys and girls aged 5-1/2, of whom 23 had imaginary, or invisible, friends.

The researchers found that the children who played with these make-believe companions 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,” Reese said in a statement on the university’s website.

The children’s language skills were assessed by measuring their vocabulary and their ability to retell a fictional story to a puppet, and then a realistic tale based on an outing or family event.

While children were not found to differ in their 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,” Reese explained.

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,” Reese added.

The study was published in the recent issue of the journal Child Development.

Writing by Miral Fahmy, editing by Sugita Katyal

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