In our fast-paced society, playtime can seem like a thing of the past – even a waste of time. Days are often hectic, and it's all too easy to push back children's requests for to play with them until "later." But, especially for parents with preschool-aged children, time spent playing with them can be one of the best investments made in their educational future.

Increasingly, a child's social and emotional development is being recognized as not only an indicator of school readiness, but as an actual predictor of school success down the road. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), "Across a range of studies, the emotional, social, and behavioral competence of young children…predict their academic performance in first grade, over and above their cognitive skills and family backgrounds"

One of the easiest ways parents can help their children develop socially and emotionally is by the simple act of playing with them. "When parents take the time and make the effort to play games with their children, this gives the children a sense that they are important in their parents' lives and that the parents really care about them,” says David Elkind, author of The Power of Play. “This is the basis of solid self esteem."

According to Elkind, time spent playing is directly related to school success. "All of this game playing and social learning makes it easier for children to learn in a school setting where they are interacting with adults and have the basic social skills that are the basis for formal learning,” he says. “These are the ability to listen to an adult and to follow instructions, to start a task and bring it to completion on their own, and to work cooperatively with other children."

As Elkind also points out, children learn a tremendous amount as they play: not only does parent-child playtime strengthen familial bonds, it also gives children a chance to learn about more subtle social nuances, like body language and vocal intonations.

Megan Newcomb, an Early Childhood and Family Education (ECFE) teacher who has taught preschool for 10 years, agrees. "When children have plenty of interaction with adults and other kids, there's no anxiety there; it's really a preparation for school. I can really see a difference in terms of confidence and self-esteem when they get to kindergarten."

Are you stuck for some fun, interactive games to play with your kids? Here are a few tested and kid-approved ideas:

  • Sing and dance. Turn on some upbeat music and dance together, sing together and play musical games like "ring around the rosy." Besides being great exercise, this develops musical rhythm, coordination and motor skills.
  • Put on a puppet show: Puppets are easily made by decorating socks or paper bags. Let kids make their own puppets and watch the story line evolve. This is a fun activity that develops creativity and imagination as children make up stories and put on their first performances.
  • Make 'shape' pictures: Cut some paper into basic shapes of various sizes – circles, squares, rectangles, triangles and ovals – and then make pictures using the shapes. For example, a rabbit can be made by gluing small 'ear,' 'leg', and 'tail' circles onto an oval 'body'. Talk about the characteristics of the shapes – "the square has four sides" - and see if your child can identify them. This is a fun and effective way to work on basic geometry skills.
  • 'Safe Base' Tag: One person is "it" and tries to tag the others, with a designated 'base' (like the fireplace hearth) being the only refuge. Indoors or outdoors, preschoolers love this game with its simple rules and the chance to burn plenty of energy. And in the process they learn about turn-taking and following rules.

While playing, parents also have the chance to observe any trouble spots in their child's development or behavior that may need extra help or guidance - like bossiness or a reluctance to clean up – and to model positive behaviors, like how to respond appropriately to 'winning' or 'losing.'

So don't feel guilty about setting aside time to really play with the kids – it's one of the best – and most enjoyable – ways to help them grow!