Although social play is common to many species, humans are unique in their ability to extract some of the benefits of social play through imagination. For example, in play with imaginary companions (ICs), children often practice skills that might be useful for later adaptive social, relational, and emotional functioning. While play with ICs does not provide the same immediate feedback that play with real others affords, this imagined, quasisocial context allows children to experiment with or rehearse events that might occur in real relationships. This symbolic enactment of social relationships might afford opportunities to experience not just social situations but all manner of positive and negative emotions in a risk-free way. In addition, children’s interactions with real others around their ICs allow for negotiation of social roles in real relationships. ICs also provide a forum for psychological distance that might help young children manage their real relationships and engage in processes such as negotiation and cooperation, which are needed for successful social adaptation. Although play with ICs is clearly not of adaptive value in an evolutionary sense, for the children who create them, ICs might hold psychological significance for adaptive social development.
Gleason, T.R. Learn Behav (2017) 45: 432. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13420-017-0284-z