There is an advertisement on PBS that says "never underestimate the power of play." I love this ad. Most parents of young children recognize that play is important in their children's development. Unfortunately, by the time children these days head off to Kindergarten, play is under-emphasized and academics is already taking center stage. There may not be a lot that parents can do once their children are in the school system but as much as possible, I encourage parents to let their kids play at home--often! It may feel like a waste of time and the time could be better spent writing grammatically correct sentences or doing mathematics, but these skills are greatly improved by encouraging play at home. If you think about a board game like Monopoly Jr. or Sorry, there is a lot of addition in counting spaces, dots on the die, recognition of numbers on cards and money, and there are opportunities for advanced math (in regular Monopoly, for example, there are 10 spaces per side and these are divided in half by the railroads so figuring out which space you're on without counting each space is a great exercise!) Not only that but important social skills are reinforced like taking turns, not cheating (or how people feel when they're being cheated in a game), following rules or agreeing to "house rules" when playing certain games which requires communication, planning, dealing with loss and good sportsmanship.
Additionally, play fosters creativity and problem solving skills ("I don't have a magic wand, what could I use instead?") and equally important, offers not only a time to connect with parents, siblings or friends but also allows for a break from the academic pursuits. This is why I encourage play with all children not just through elementary school but into adulthood. Play may change from imaginative (play foods or "house") to board games (Chutes and Ladders, Cootie) to more advanced board games (Monopoly, Scrabble, chess) to what may lead to career choices: set design, props, costumes, screen writing, acting, etc. and that's just the "non physical" forms of play! Much can be learned from a game of catch or baseball (counting, turn taking, sharing, hand-eye coordination, teamwork, etc.)
If you come to my office, you will see at least 20 games--many of which are straight from Target, many are "therapeutic games". I love to play games with my clients--young and "old". With children, this may be the only time they are allowed to play with an adult! They can learn strategy from an adult, a higher level of language, how to play more advanced games and more. As they're enjoying a pleasant game of Jenga, they tend to open up and talk about things that bother them. In order to facilitate more discussion, I have modified many of my non-therapeutic games to have a therapeutic component to them but I also have some that I haven't altered at all.
You don't have to be a therapist to see the benefits of playing with your kids. It encourages discussion, allows a forum for spending time together, allows an opportunity to learn new things, develop intelligence, and most importantly, feeling connected to others and hopefully a few much-needed belly laughs!
I have several parents that bring their child to therapy and say that the child doesn't do well with games--when they loose they throw a fit. This is pretty common and one thing I've found that helps is continually making statements about how fun the process of play is--not the message that "its so fun when I win!" Things like "I love watching how happy you are!" or "Wow! You're really doing a great job with counting!" or "It's great to see you figuring this game out!" but also things like "Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose but its just a game and at the end of it, we still love each other!" An additional "rule" can be that the winner has to clean up the game!
I encourage you to play with your children. It doesn't have to be a deep, therapeutic goal but just enjoy spending the time with them! If its a fun, low-key event, its a great stress reliever for everyone--including the parents! If they're not into classic board games and are totally into Minecraft or some other computer game, have them teach you about it! Kids love to be the expert! Go play!