children, imaginary companions, and narrative skills:two case studies of the potential developmental benefits of imaginary companion play for the narrative skills of young children

Open Access
Swartz, Suzanne Elizabeth
Graduate Program:
Curriculum and Instruction
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
July 16, 2014
Committee Members:
  • James Ewald Johnson, Dissertation Advisor
  • James Ewald Johnson, Committee Chair
  • Vivian Yenika Agbaw, Committee Member
  • Daniel Dean Hade, Committee Member
  • Edgar Paul Yoder, Special Member
  • decontextualized language
  • dynamic systems theory
  • imaginary companion play
  • narrative skill
  • play-literacy nexus.
Imaginary companion play is traditionally recognized as a childhood phenomenon and is associated with imagination and pretend play. As a sustained and complex form of role play, imaginary companion play becomes more detailed and abstract and functions as a highly complex mode of play expression in early childhood. Narrative, evident in children’s decontextualized language, is a complex form of linguistic expression in early childhood. Imaginary companion play and narrative both require sophisticated, symbolic mental and linguistic construction for creation and duration; both processes require similar decontextualization. This dissertation investigates the imaginary companion play and narrative skills of young children. Designed as an exploratory, qualitative study, this study is contextualized within the “play-literacy nexus” and utilizes multiple forms of narrative research. Two case studies were conducted with single child-participants and accompanying parent-participants. Parent-participants completed semi-structured interviews prior to the initiation of data collection sessions with child-participants. Through semi-structured interviews, narrative task productions, and artistic and dramatic task productions, child-participants shared their experiences of imaginary companion play and demonstrations of narrative skill development. Also collected were child-participants’ spontaneous narratives about their imaginary companions. Using analysis of narrative and assessment of narratives presented with a creative narrative writing stance, each child-participant’s central story yielded information that addressed or challenged the following themes: the concept of imaginary companion play; the qualities of young children with imaginary companions; the connection between pretend play and narrative skills; and the potential developmental benefits of imaginary companion play for narrative skills of young children. Child-participant and parent-participant interviews yielded striking profiles that aligned with themes of friendship, ownership, and imagination. Study results indicate the potential benefit of imaginary companion play for the narrative skills of young children in areas: abstract thought processes like mental and linguistic constructions; and narrative skill advantages like sophisticated language use, story schema expertise, and psychological causation. Study results also yielded demonstrations of decontextualization in play and language. This study indicates a need for further research in the areas of: refined dynamic systems theory as a lens for analyzing pretend play and narrative development; and connections between imaginary companion play and potential child development.