Since she was a toddler, my five-year-old has been utterly devoted to a mint-green stuffed hippo named, appropriately, Hippo. He/she (the toy's gender remains undecided) has been a faithful companion to my daughter, accompanying her on vacations, snuggling up with her at naps and bedtime, and serving as a playmate when my other daughter is otherwise engaged. Hippo even benefits me by offering traffic advice in the car: "Mommy, Hippo says we should go the other way because there's an accident straight ahead," my daughter will say.
I've always assumed that having an imaginary friend - in stuffed or human form - is normal and healthy for children, but I was still heartened to read today that this is, indeed, the case. In summarizing some of the research on the benefits of imaginary companions, Huffington Post's Lisa Belkin writes:
They serve a variety of roles in a child's development. The NYU Child Study Center describes the creation of these companions as "the product of a creative and curious mind figuring out how to make sense of the widening world." Marjorie Taylor, the University of Oregon professor who is one of the leading voices in the field, and who runs a website that is all about imaginary friends, says one of the many reasons for their existence is as a shield against fear. "Children can walk confidently past a scary dog when there is an invisible tiger at their side," she writes. Others researchers have looked at how these pals help children to "try out different relationships at a critical point in their social development," or "allow children to explore issues of control, discipline and power with the anxiety attached to interactions with real authority figures," or just have have "fun."
Children are better off because of them. Among the conclusions of research into children with imaginary companions are: "those who have them more able to see things from someone else's perspective;" "children who pretend and imagine usually are healthier emotionally as adults"; "these children are likely to be less shy and have more real life friends."