What your child most wants — and needs — is to be with you with no goal in mind beyond the joy of spending time together. He wants you to take pleasure in him, play with him, and listen to him. Nothing bolsters his self-esteem more! So why not pull out a board game tonight? Playing games is an easy and excellent way to spend unhurried, enjoyable time together. As an added bonus, board games are also rich in learning opportunities. They satisfy your child's competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:
- number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
- letter recognition and reading
- visual perception and color recognition
- eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity
By virtue of playing them, board games can also teach important social skills, such as communicating verbally, sharing, waiting, taking turns, and enjoying interaction with others. Board games can foster the ability to focus, and lengthen your child's attention span by encouraging the completion of an exciting, enjoyable game. Even simple board games like Chutes and Ladders offer meta-messages and life skills: Your luck can change in an instant — for the better or for the worse. The message inherent in board games is: Never give up. Just when you feel despondent, you might hit the jackpot and ascend up high, if you stay in the game for just a few more moves.
Board games have distinct boundaries. Living in a complex society, children need clear limits to feel safe. By circumscribing the playing field — much as tennis courts and football fields will do later — board games can help your child weave his wild and erratic side into a more organized, mature, and socially acceptable personality. After all, staying within the boundaries (not intruding on others' space, for example) is crucial to leading a successful social and academic life.
A Word About Winning
Children take game playing seriously, so it's important that we help guide them through the contest. When a playing piece falls to a lower level, our kids really feel sad; when it rises up high, they are remarkably proud and happy, even if we adults know that it happened only by chance. Therefore, you need to help balance your child's pleasure in playing the game with his very limited ability to manage frustration and deal with the idea of losing.
For 3, 4, and even 5 year olds, winning is critical to a feeling of mastery. So generally, I think it's okay to "help" them win. By about 6, kids should begin to internalize the rules of fair play, tenuous as they may seem to a child who is losing a game. So I am also fine with a 6 year old "amending" the rules to win if he feels she has to. I encourage you to acknowledge your child's need for special rules. At the start of the game, you might want to ask, "Are we playing by regular or cheating rules today?"...
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