In some ways an imaginary friend and imaginary play are the same.
Many (if not most) children at some point begin “writing” plays. They often repeat the same drama over and over again. A friend of mine, Robert Malii, has taught for over 20 years at a Montessori school. He came to New York from Kenya, where he grew up in a very rural setting. He has told me that the children there, as here, act out being the mother, the father, the brother, sister, baby, etc.
The kids in my playgroup of two-year-olds, are with me from September to June – one year generally. As a group their fantasy play only really gets going around January or February. This is true every year! Of course, there are always those children who start to develop this sort of play earlier, but I’m referring to the group as a whole.
So it seems we humans develop in similar ways, and at about the same time, as we go along in life. Extremely young people always seem to be trying to make eye-contact with, well, anyone. We are incredibly interesting to each other right from the start.
One day when my daughter, Sara, was about two years old, I noticed her “carrying” and talking to a tiny invisible creature (I never found out who or what it was) and placing it carefully on one of her wooden blocks (like a bed). She spoke to it very quietly, and so, I unfortunately never found out what she was saying. Of course, it is a thrill when your child’s play begins to get more complicated. It seems to come out of nowhere – but of course it doesn’t. By the time they are two they have been observing the world around them, and taking notes. I’ve been lucky enough to spend lots and lots of time with two-year-olds since then, and watch their play develop.
I didn’t see much of that imaginary friend of Sara’s after that, but she played a lot with her neighborhood friends and did all the stuff most kids do. HOWEVER. The summer she turned three, we went on a trip to Maine. We decided to rent a boat for an afternoon. While her father rowed the boat and we quietly moved around a small and shallow lake, I pointed various things out to Sara. At one point I asked her to look at the beautiful and massive rocks on the bottom of the lake. As we leaned over the side of the boat she said: “I know. I put them there.” I was shocked and thrilled! This was the beginning of an imaginary world that Sara constructed that lasted until she was a little over four. She had come here from Japan. Do you know how she put clouds in the sky? She got a really, really tall ladder and glued polyester fiberfill to the sky. Do you know how she put color on TV? She put buttons on the back of the television in every color and then “Went: whoosh” and there it was. When she was closer to four years old she described in detail how she had built a very complicated wooden bicycle when she lived in Japan, but couldn’t bring it with her. When she turned four, she said: “Mommy, you know all that stuff I told you about Japan?” I said: “Yes.” She said: “I made it up.”