Nursery workers say imaginary friends are becoming less common, with too much screen time affecting children’s imaginations.
A poll indicates that almost three in four nursery owners, managers and staff think fewer children have imaginary friends now than five years ago.
Almost two thirds of those questioned think that screens are making children less imaginative.
Children today are often left with little time to be bored or left to their own devices, industry leaders suggested, with time instead filled with screens and activities.
The daynurseries.co.uk poll, which questioned 1,000 nursery workers, found that almost half (48%) say that there are children at their nursery who have imaginary friends.
A total of 72% agreed that fewer children have imaginary friends now than five years ago.
And 63% of those questioned said they think screens are making children less imaginative.
David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nursery group, Southampton, said: “One or two children in our nursery do have imaginary friends but they mainly come out at home, when children are alone.
“Less children have them now than previously.
“I think that children are not allowed to be ‘bored’ any more.
“When children have free time to themselves, they find something creative to do with their mind, such as forming an imaginary friend.”
He told the PA news agency that there is a “general issue with children’s creativity and development of imagination”.
“Quite often these days, children expect to be entertained in some way, so that they’re receiving content either from a tablet or a TV, and I think that diminishes their ability to then use their own imagination to create imaginary friends, to develop language and stories and that kind of thing.”
Dr Paige Davis, a psychology lecturer at York St John University, said children who make up imaginary friends are typically aged between five and seven, and often do so to help them deal with a situation, or when they are building certain life skills, like talking to others.
It is difficult to tell the number of children who have imaginary friends and whether this is changing, she said, as they can be recorded in different ways.
For example, some may consider only “invisible” characters that a child has made up to be an imaginary friend, while others would count a toy, such as a teddy or doll, that a youngster has created a personality for.
Dr Davis said she believes that children are making up invisible friends that are unique as ever, but that the way that children play with imaginary friends could have changed over time.
TV and modern technology has changed the way children play in general, she suggested.
“Back when you didn’t have TV, or kids watched a lot less TV, you would have this spontaneous play that they created, that they were using their minds without any other thing, other than maybe a bolster from a parent or another child, whereas now you have these kids that think ‘oh, we have to play like this’ because that’s the structure of the TV.”
For example, children may play a game with a storyline they have seen on TV, rather than come up with one themselves.
Sue Learner, editor of daynurseries.co.uk, said: “It is sad that nursery staff have seen a decline in children having imaginary friends as it seems they are losing the ability to create a magical and fantastical world full of exciting adventures.
“Parents can tend to fill every hour of a child’s day with activities and screens and they are no longer left to get bored.
“When children are left to their own devices, it forces them to be creative and discover an inner world where they meet fun imaginary friends like Puff the Magic Dragon.”
– The daynurseries.co.uk poll questioned 1,000 nursery owners, managers and staff in April and May.