Sometimes, the best things in life really are free.
The difference between a happy parent and an overwhelmed one is the difference between a parent that sees the big picture and one who is caught up in the drudgery of the moment. You don't need to spend money to make children happy; you need to spend time.
I'm not going to rail against expensive computer games, videos, summer camps, activity groups, and so on ... except to say that, while these may have their place, two things these items have in common are that they separate a) you from your child, and b) you from your money.
The best alternative to these items is to look at the big picture. If you have a child, I want you to take ten seconds to look at him or her.
You have, at best, eighteen years to play with that child. Once the child is past eighteen, you may have still have a relationship, but it will no longer be with that child. It will be with the adult who took his or her place.
You've got a good many years to live after that child turns eighteen. And you've lived a good many years before he or she was born. Now is your only chance to be with that child.
Every smile, every cough, every bruise, every tantrum, every defiant stare, every catch and tumble; these only happen for so long. Make each one count. Sure, you make mistakes, but even mistakes are good lessons if you recover from them and build on them. It's better late than never to really start playing with the child that you have.
Look at the big picture.
Accept that playing with your kids is time well spent
Play is natural, both for children and for adults. We never stop having a need to play, we just have other things to think about. And life tells us that, since these other things are serious, that therefore they are not games. What hogwash.
You can turn just about any task short of a funeral preparation into a game. Putting joy into your living doesn't mean taking life less seriously. It just means enjoying life more. Stop wasting your life and start playing games.
Share time together with your child; recognize what is most important; see the big picture. All of those other things you do, you do to spend time with your children; maybe you forgot that. If you only spend time with your child, you may not have any money; ok. But if you spend no time with your child, aren't you missing the point?
Play helps a young mind grow. Every minute of play is a minute of rapt attention at learning something; if it's not a new task or new information, it is learning that closeness and laughter are possible in this world.
Play helps an old mind rejuvenate. Studies show that play staves off dementia and Alzheimer's.
Playing means learning about the real world. Any play, however you formulate it, means social connection, distinguishing between what's in the game and what's out, pattern building, fairness, cooperation, attention, and challenge.
Playing means learning about other people and their feelings.
Play teaches every conceivable subject: math, verbal, history, economics, politics, environment, safety, law, and so on. Not only do game themes cover all of these subjects, these subjects are the natural lessons learned from playing many games.
Play builds abstraction and possibility. The real world is one thing. Play is the first step to imagining something possible that doesn't yet exist. All play exists within an abstract fantasy world imposed over our own. The older the child gets, the larger this space can become.
Play helps us learn about each other. What makes us suspicious, what it means to hurt, what it means to play fair. How to build trust.
Play helps toughen us against obstacles and failure. It builds resolve and fortitude. We must deal with losing and winning; we must deal with our own emotions in a way that doesn't inflict them unfairly upon other people.
Play teaches us to deal with the consequences of our own actions.
Here's more on why we play games.
Know your child
Every child is different. I don't have to tell you that, right? This means that not every play style or type of game will work with each child.
Some children will find certain types of games more challenging than others. Some will find some games more boring than others. You may be tempted, and the child may be tempted, to only play games where your child already knows how to win. That is not the right path. Play games that are fun and don't turn them into bad experiences, but don't shirk away from building up skills in all types of areas.
Avoid the boring, but don't avoid the challenging. If your child gets upset because a game is hard, it may be that you need to explore the nature of what games are, and explain that failure in a game does not equate to failure as a person. Or, it may be that there are equivalent types of challenges that your child could take on somewhere else.
Knowing when to switch to something else is a tough call. You don't want your child to do nothing but crow about winning - that is not what games are about. You also don't want your child to face challenges that he or she doesn't really need to or are just too hard, when there are other more rewarding paths to pursue.
Broaden the definition of play
There are all types of play, appropriate for different age children, different cultures, and different personalities. Don't narrow your definitions to only one type of game. Chess is not the only valuable game, even if you, yourself, are a Chess grandmaster.
Think kinesthetics: running, tumbling, jumping, dancing, sports.
Think thinking. Think storytelling or creative writing. Consider games where you name things and your child repeats them, or games where you ask your child to name things that he or she sees.
Some games just follow simple questions: What should we do, now? What's next? How do I get from here to there? How are we/you going to solve this?
There are games of cooperation and games of competition. Remember that even competitive games are essentially cooperative activities. All players have to come together, agree to the rules, and participate to make the game work. The end result is a played game.
Narrow the definition of play
Still, there are things to look out for when playing with children.
Avoid total luck. It's not that a child doesn't learn anything by throwing a die and moving a piece. It's that it's empty calories. At the same time, the child could be throwing a die and making a decision about where to move a piece. Same activity, much better experience.
Both require you to count, both require you to recognize, both require you to adhere to rules and react as events occur. But one imposes the results on you as if you are a spectator at a horse race, while the other develops your brain. Avoid "games" that requires no decisions; I call these "gambling".
Avoid rule breaking. Winning isn't everything - that lesson applies whether you are two or twenty. If you don't learn this lesson at two, when are you going to learn it? A huge lesson of games is that the stated object of the game may be "winning", but real winning means trying your best and creating a good experience. Losing forty-nine chess games is winning if you get better each time.
If you cheat on behalf of your child, you teach that actual winning in the game is more important than the real lessons of the game. This leads to children who cheat later on, children who think that losing is bad (so it's safer not to play). Or children who feel good about themselves without having made any effort. That's not what we want to teach.
Avoid nasty competitions. Children must learn that you do not win at all costs. The game is a story that has to play out within the bounds of its rules. Hurting or cheating breaks the game; if the game is broken, you may have "won", but you didn't win the original game; that got tossed out along the way.
Avoid complete structurelessness. Even little children need to start building patterns. If they can never guess what is going to happen, then they can't learn anything.
Avoid stereotyping by gender or apparent intelligence. Don't assume that boys or girls are better or worse at certain types of games, or will want to play or avoid certain types of games. Let them experience the games, and gently get them to try all types of games before letting them decide. And don't let them back away from all challenges. That's what they're playing for.
Also, children who are not smart in some ways may surprise you by being good players at almost any type of game, if given the opportunity.
Avoid brainless games that isolate your young child from other people, such as repetitive video games or computer games that simply display pretty pictures. When kids are older, limited amounts of online games can be both social and valuable.
Avoid games that you can't stand; if it's not fun for you, it won't be fun for your child for very long.
Find good games
Many great games are free and need no components: peek-a-boo, stack the cups, find a blue rock, build a raft.
Many need no more than pencil and paper, such as Connect Four, Dots and Boxes, Hangman, Maven, and countless other games. Others need only a deck of cards, a group of dice, a ball, some nets, jacks, marbles, or other cheap equipment.
If you are going to buy games, look for games that are suitable for age level or a little higher. Avoid choking hazards, of course. Avoid games that are worthless and are wanted only for their pictures or association with a licensed brand. The point is to learn and play, not hang the board and pieces on your wall.
Good sites: KidGameRatings, Games Kids Play, and Kids Games. There are many other sites, but don't decide to play a game just because some kid site recommends it or it looks easy: many sites don't think carefully about what they recommend. Candyland is not your optimal children's game!
If you're stuck inside and your child insists on playing something brain-dead like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, you can instantly make almost any bad game better by giving each player a second pawn. When the spinner spins or the die rolls, you then have to make a decision about which pawn to move.
Remember that all games are springboards for new games. You can spruce up almost any game by adding some more interesting decision making rules at the beginning of the game. For instance, you can take a typical roll-and-move game and let each player play the game with a set of cards, rather than rolling dice. Each player hold a hand of three cards. On their turn, they play a card, move that amount, and then pick another card.
Or, each player can have a special ability, such as re-rolling two rolls during the whole game, or always moving one more or less space than the die says, or roll twice, pick one of the dice. Each player than picks or is randomly given an ability before the game starts (switch off, to keep things balanced). The abilities should add decision making, when possible.
There is also a great book called New Rules for Classic Games that is worth checking out.
Remember the big picture: you've only got one life to live. Fill it with games.