I can still hear the squeak of my sneakers on the gym floor — that
short, sharp, unmistakable sound of youth. The rest of my team had fallen, but
I was still pivoting, jumping and clinging to a foam ball. Our last hope.
It was dodgeball, and it was serious business. It was also
kind of hilarious, because I was 33 at the time, the executive editor of an
early literacy program. I worked with a team of dedicated, passionate
people, often for very long hours. We had joined an adult dodgeball team as a
way to blow off steam.
According to Dr. Stuart Brown, author of the bestselling
book, "Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates
the Soul," play is vital for adults. It keeps us fit, physically and mentally.
It "fosters belonging and encourages cooperation."
At the same time that the value of play for adults is increasingly
acknowledged, the opposite is happening for children in many American schools,
where children are given, on average, somewhere from 10 to 15 minutes of
recess a day.
But now even that is under threat. Most recently, schools
in Florida are arguing to cut back on recess to make more room for
instruction time — something this
school in Syracuse has already implemented. Elsewhere in New York, a
school has banned cartwheels, tag and balls at recess.
"They are 4," she said. "We think it's most important at this age that they play and celebrate."
This not only goes against strongscientificevidence
of the physical and cognitive benefits of play, including developing problem-solving skills and helping children construct their own ideas about the world. But
it flies in the face of what experts on the subject
"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are
learning," according to the late Fred Rogers. Dr. Benjamin Spock
wrote, "A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard."
Even Plato was on board: "Do
not … keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play."
My son recently started preschool in the Netherlands, and
it's a very different mentality here, thankfully. Walking across my son's
schoolyard is like a Cirque du Soleil performance compared to how I imagine
some American schoolyards to be. Not only are there various kinds of balls and
children running amuck, there are unicycles and children on stilts.
After his first day, I published a post about his experience
and included that he had fallen off a trampoline. Virtually
every person from the U.S. who responded honed in the
unbelievable recklessness of a trampoline in a school.
My son attends a Jenaplan school,
which was built on the belief that "experiences of human beings
need freedom and social interaction for development."
I'm thrilled by my son's school's emphasis on play. He will learn physical and mental strength. But equally valuable, he will challenge himself to do something he's afraid of.
When I attended the first orientation meeting
to see if the school was right for my son, I asked the principal about the
curriculum, looking for information on benchmark assessments and median GPAs. "They
are 4," she said. "We think it's most important at this age that they play
I thought, "Sure, but I also would like him to
learn about things like math and spelling." And now that he's been attending the
school for three months, I am convinced the method is right. He can write his and his friend's names. He can
spell and rhyme, count to 100, identify certain words in books. Most
impressive to me, he can connect ideas and form his own thoughts in far more sophisticated
ways than before.
But it's not just his school. Play is important in general here.
Every Wednesday from the equivalent of PreK to the last year of high school,
students are released at noon and are expected to either take part in a sport
activity or to go play with a friend.
We don't say "playdate" here. We say "afspreken," to make a
date. These dates are arranged by the children rather than the adults, and it
happens spontaneously. I am never sure on Wednesday afternoons whether I will
be coming home with additional kids or without my son.
I'm thrilled by my son's school's emphasis on play. He will
learn physical and mental strength, understand fair play and competition, and
improve his concentration. But equally valuable, he'll scrape a knee or two,
challenge himself to do something he's afraid of, and when he's grown and
feeling the weight of adult life, he might find release in the squeaky sound of
a sneaker on a gym floor.