In today’s Wall Street Journal, Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, laments the lost art of play for American kids. The fear of injury and the desire to make every moment academically enriching discourage parents and daycare centers from letting kids just run around and play. Skenazy points to research documenting the decline in active play and discusses how this phenomenon could be making kids less safe and healthy as they get less exercise and develop fewer physical skills.

I’ve written before about the startling differences between playgrounds in the United States and in Europe, as well as how the specter of litigation harms American culture generally.

American parents, however, can feel justifiably frustrated about the mixed messages that they get about how to help their kids thrive. Skenazy notes how parents mistakenly assume that trading playing time for reading time is a way to help prepare preschoolers for school, when play itself is actually an important way for kids to development necessary skills.

Yet American parents can hardly be blamed though for feeling pressure to do everything possible to get their kids “ready to read” as quickly as possible. It’s a focal point of just about all media geared to concerned parents.

Europe seems to have a very different philosophy when it comes to what preschool is about and how best to prepare kids to learn. We lived in Austria for two years and are now in Brussels, with a one-year stint in Virginia in between. In Austria, my daughters were in preschool, and there was absolutely nothing an American would consider academic about their school time. No letter recognition or push toward naming shapes or counting for counting sake. At the German school in Brussels (where my kids are currently enrolled), kids start learning to associate sounds with letters and ultimately to sound out words and read in first grade.

My three-year-old was receiving similar instruction at her preschool in Virginia. My five-year-old took part in a rigorous reading program during her kindergarten in a Virginia public school, and I would have felt like a complete failure as a parent if she hadn’t been able to make it through basic books by the end of that year.

Intellectually, I appreciate the European model that seems to be more relaxed about skill acquisition at this young age. Yet I struggle as a parent not to panic about the need to keep up on the faster academic track that I know their U.S. peers are following.

Bombarded with messages about the need to protect kids from potential dangers and to use every tool possible to give them a leg up academically, it’s hard for parents (and other caregivers) to know when to draw the line. Using common sense and letting kids be kids is easy advice to give, but a challenge to embrace.