The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children is an article from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It doesn’t focus on board games specifically, but does bring up many interesting points about how play is undervalued in our current American culture—especially in education where a focus on standardized testing often erases play from lesson plans.
An increasing societal focus on academic readiness (promulgated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001) has led to a focus on structured activities that are designed to promote academic results as early as preschool, with a corresponding decrease in playful learning. Social skills, which are part of playful learning, enable children to listen to directions, pay attention, solve disputes with words, and focus on tasks without constant supervision.
Tabletop games are a perfect fit for what the paper calls “guided play.”
Guided play retains the child agency, such that the child initiates the play, but it occurs either in a setting that an adult carefully constructs with a learning goal in mind (eg, a children’s museum exhibit or a Montessori task) or in an environment where adults supplement the child-led exploration with questions or comments that subtly guide the child toward a goal. Board games that have well-defined goals also fit into this category.
When we sit down around a table together and play a board game, we agree on a set of rules to govern the experience.
Pretend play encourages self-regulation because children must collaborate on the imaginary environment and agree about pretending and conforming to roles, which improves their ability to reason about hypothetical events. Social–emotional skills are increasingly viewed as related to academic and economic success.
As an adult, I can attest to feeling energized and elated after spending an hour in a game with my kids.
Playing with children adds value not only for children but also for adult caregivers, who can reexperience or reawaken the joy of their own childhood and rejuvenate themselves.
On the role of media:
Media (eg, television, video games, and smartphone and tablet applications) use often encourages passivity and the consumption of others’ creativity rather than active learning and socially interactive play. Most importantly, immersion in electronic media takes away time from real play. […] Parent surveys have revealed that many parents see media and technology as the best way to help their children learn. However, researchers contradict this. Researchers have compared preschoolers playing with blocks independently with preschoolers watching Baby Einstein tapes and have shown that the children playing with blocks independently developed better language and cognitive skills than their peers watching videos. […] real-time social interactions remain superior to digital media for home learning.