The child’s independent play – myth or reality

by 12.12.2022

The child can play alone, this is their nature, a way of existing, expressing themself, and developing. 

Independent play begins in the first months after birth with the examination of the fingers of the hands, with cooing. However, parents often feel obliged to constantly engage the babe in organized games, which can actually lead to a feeling of not being able to play and being alone.

Whether at all, in what way, and how much the child will engage in playing independently also depends on their age. 

A one-year-old holds attention in any activity for about a minute. But if the parents work and stimulate independence, then the child will transition from one activity to another and play fruitfully for an extended time.

The character of the child also plays an important role – it contains both innate and acquired and learned traits. We believe that the social element is very strong, which in this case means that the child can learn to play and explore the world independently, as long as the parent encourages them in this natural desire. 

Parenting styles are different and inculcate certain values, hence skills. Therefore, children’s play looks different depending on the approach of adults. A lot of moms say, “He plays sweetly, but I’m just anxious to leave him alone.”

The path to independent play goes through training in independence itself – the ability to wait, postpone pleasure, to take responsibility for oneself according to age-appropriate norms. For example, in the first year, the child should not be left to cry for a long time on purpose, especially when they need food and sleep, and touch. Around the first year, in situations where it is already clear to the parent that the child’s dissatisfaction is related to a desire rather than a basic need, a process of postponing the desire may begin. 

After the child learns to walk, the active period begins, in which they get to know the rules in the family, with which the act of play is also connected. While the parent is doing something, the child usually rushes off to some activity that may not be playing with toys. While mom is in the kitchen, kids love to explore and play with food boxes, ladles, etc. So they can spend time together while everyone is busy with their own activities. 

The key to independent play, so dreamed of by many parents, is the understanding that play is not necessarily with toys, but any activity picked up by the child, staring into space, daydreaming, or just trashing with spoons and pans.

Regarding the organization of space, there are many recommendations from various popular methodologies. All of them are wonderful in their own right. 

But if the parent doesn’t think it’s safe for the child to be alone in the room, or feels obligated to keep them busy, the child probably won’t start playing independently simply because they don’t have that developmental option.

It is good to follow the child’s natural interests because they are evolutionarily determined and ensure correct brain structuring, and it is these that parents should try to engage by entering the young person’s world instead of (almost) constantly instructing, controlling, and teaching from a distance or orchestrating activities. 

Of course, all this is possible based on the clear boundaries and rules of the family. And in terms of safety, I always advise parents not to over-secure the environment. It creates developmental limitations by depriving sensory and motor stimuli – fundamentally important to brain growth and a form of external control over children, but does not foster an internal sense of self-control and personal responsibility, which is a good long-term goal.


Gergana Markova, PhD, Marina Titeva