The theory is that by chatting to an imaginary companion a child becomes more practised at using language and constructing conversation, as he or she is carrying out both sides of the interaction. Children aged 4 to 11 both with and without imaginary friends are therefore being studied, to compare their ability to communicate meaning and the complexity of their grammar.
Researchers estimate that up to 25% of children have imaginary companions, particularly only- or first-born children. They are defined as vivid, imagined characters which might be people, animals or objects, which a child believes they are interacting with in an on-going way. The friend may be `invisible' or take the form of a toy animal or doll, and is treated as if it has a personality and consciousness of its own.
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