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The Dutch Are Better Than Us: Recess Edition

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.

RELATED: Recess: Don't Let it Go!

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."

Adult playgrounds are popping up around the world. Coloring books for grown-ups are being lauded as a way to thwart depression. Play is everywhere. "Play is art, books, movies, music, comedy, flirting and daydreaming," writes Dr. Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play.

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 strong scientific evidence 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 advocate.

"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 and celebrate."

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.

RELATED: Kids Don't Know How to Play, Even in Finland

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.

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