Imaginary Thinking

Imaginary thinking occurs when the contents of our thoughts escape the boundaries of the here and now, such as when we reflect on the past or imagine the future. Sometimes the content of imaginary thinking is accurate or realistic, but frequently our thoughts go beyond what is true or likely as we contemplate fictional worlds and nonactual possibilities. Although prototypes of imaginary thinking might include a child’s imagined conversation with an invisible friend or an adult’s creation of a fictional narrative, imaginary thinking is also involved in mundane everyday activities (e.g., planning for the weekend). Thus, imaginary thinking or imagination should not be equated with special creativity or “imaginativeness.” Imagination is an essential component of creativity, but theorists such as Paul Harris have conceived it more broadly as a basic capacity of human thought that is connected with memory, problem solving, counterfactual reasoning, and other fundamental aspects of cognition.

Imaginary thinking begins early. In fact, some of the most compelling examples are found in pretend play, a widespread activity in human children that is almost entirely absent in other species. Children start to pretend in the second year of life, about the same time that they begin to talk. The first acts of pretense are simple; the toddler raises an empty cup to the lips, makes drinking noises, and smiles at the caregiver. By the time children are 5 or 6 years old, they are capable of engaging in elaborate social games of pretending, stepping in and out of their roles to give stage directions to the other players and to deal with the interruptions of everyday life. They also use their developing imaginations to entertain themselves when they are alone. For example, it is common for preschool children to invent imaginary companions who serve as a combination of friend, confidant, and scapegoat.

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In the past, children’s pretend play has not always been viewed in a positive light. In particular, Piaget described early pretending as evidence of immature thought that was not adapted to reality, an activity that would be outgrown with the cognitive advances of middle childhood. More recently, theorists such as Dorothy  and  Jerome  Singer,  Inge  Bretherton,  and Paul Harris have proposed a more positive view linking pretend play with children’s understanding of reality, emotional mastery, and adult imagination. In pretend  play,  children  explore  emotions  in  games that are under their control. They learn to make sense of the world by considering alternatives to reality. According to Harris, the capacity to consider what might have happened is crucial to causal and moral reasoning.

The findings of correlational research are consistent with this positive view of pretending. Children who participate in elaborate and frequent pretending tend to score higher on tests of language ability, self-control, divergent thinking, perspective taking, and a range of other measures of social and emotional development. When children show significant deficits in pretending, there is cause for concern. For example, a deficit in pretend play is one of the primary  symptoms  associated  with  autism.  Children with autism might be fascinated with blocks or other toys and spend hours lining them up, but they do not use them as props in games of make-believe in the way that is so common in normally developing children.

Children continue to pretend beyond the preschool years, although these activities tend to be more private (e.g., a teenager who writes to an imaginary companion in her diary or spends hours in role play games on the Internet). More broadly, imaginary thinking continues with an increasing ability to conceptualize nonactual, fictional, and metaphysical possibilities. It is a uniquely human capacity that develops early and is crucial in everyday thinking throughout life.


  1. Harris, P. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  2. Rosengren,   S.,  Johnson,  C.  N.,  &  Harris  P.  L.  (Eds.). (2001). Imagining the impossible: Magical, scientific, and religious  thinking  in  children.  New York:  Cambridge University Press.
  3. Singer, D. G., & Singer, J. L. (1990). The house of make-believe: Children’s play and the developing imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
  4. Taylor, M. (1999). Imaginary companions and the children who create them. New York: Oxford University