Why I Love Dutch Children’s Films

20 September 2016

Dutch Children's Films

My nine-year-old daughter used to watch noisy cartoons, progressing from Dora the Explorer to Pokemon and Ben 10, and watching all the Disney and Pixar hits on the way. But about a year ago there was a sea change in her viewing. She discovered serialised Dutch children’s book adaptations such as Koen Kampioen (about a young footballer), De Leeuwenkuil (about a family running a zoo) and Hoe overleef ik (about an adolescent girl). Then she moved on to the wealth of Dutch children’s films shown during the ‘Zappbios’ slot on national tv. For the first time, I started eagerly joining her in front of the telly.


Dutch cinema tends to be realist and naturalistic; films frequently deal with family and friendship issues, tackling loyalty, betrayal, failed ambitions. While this can make for dull and rather monotonous adult films with a lack of dramatic action, Dutch children’s cinema is often outstanding. The young leads act well (by this I mean subtly) and the issues treated work well within the context of childhood, growing up and learning about how the world works. For example, we recently watched the Emmy-award winning lightly comic Rhubarb about a step-brother and sister who try to fix their parents’ failing second marriage. Interestingly, relatively few of the films contain fantasy elements – examples are Dolfje (‘Alfie the Werewolf’ about a boy who becomes a werewolf on his 7th birthday) and Dummie the Mummy (about an Egyptian child mummy that  turns up in a Dutch village), but even these also feature regular children in a realist setting.


I have a hunch that Dutch films are easy to relate to because they feature actual children as opposed to fantasy adults or animals. I’m hard-pushed to think of many Hollywood films with human kids in: Home Alone, ET, Back to the Future all hark back to the 80s, and then there are the more recent Roald Dahl adaptations, of course, but still. It’s almost as if superheroes, princesses and animals have to stand in for children most of the time. The sad reason might have something to do with the lack of freedom American children have while growing up. What makes the plots and premises of the Dutch films possible is the fact that Dutch children are free to play outdoors for hours on end in real life. The young characters portrayed in the films move around without parental supervision. They play outdoors, going off on little adventures in the way the Famous Five and Secret Seven did in the Enid Blyton books I read as a child. They have their own (head)space in which the dramatic action can take place. They aren’t followed about by hovering parents.


The other difference is that Dutch parents don’t protect their children from learning about the more challenging aspects of life. They don’t grow up in a rose-coloured bubble, shielded from knowledge of illness, death or sex. Life is not censored. The last Zappbios we watched was actually a German film called Köpfuber (Upside Down). It is about a ten year-old boy losing his joie de vivre as a side effect of ADHD medication. It was hard-hitting rather than a feel-good movie but definitely food for thought. Allowing children to watch Dutch and other European arthouse-style movies prepares them for the real world in a way that no Disney film can.


Here are my daughter’s favourite Dutch films:

  1. Achtste-Groepers Huilen Niet / Cool Kids Don’t Cry

A 12-year-old gets leukemia in the last year of primary school. I think this struck a particular chord because one of my daughter’s close friends was suffering from cancer at the time.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6LvdPO07b60

  1. Kauwboy / Crow-boy

A boy and a crow and a violent father, it reminds me of the Ken Loach’s Kes.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x2arjDF3hmo

  1.  De Boskampis / The Boskampis

A comedy about a boy who pretends his dorky father is a Mafia boss.

Trailer: https://vimeo.com/120481247

  1. Mees Kees / Class of Fun

A trainee teacher gets put in front of the class. Comedy.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRragbB5npg

  1. Het Paard van Sinterklaas / St Nicholas’s Horse

Perennial classic about a young Chinese girl hoping for a gift in her shoe.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MTdLL08Yds

  1. In Oranje / In Orange

Film about a boy who dreams of playing for the Dutch football team and loses his father to a heart attack.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXUXi9IkwPo

  1. Het Zakmes / The Pen Knife

Cute 1992 film about a six year-old trying to return a penknife to a friend who has moved away.

No trailer but here is an except: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPz8cvTYjCw

  1. De Sterkste Man van Nederland / The Strongest Man in Holland

A single mum tells her son that his father was the strongest man in the Netherlands. He goes off in search.

Trailer (no subtitles): https://www.filmtotaal.nl/film/19940

  1. Minoes / The Cat That Came In From The Roof

Film of Annie MG Schmidt’s classic children’s book about a young woman who can turn into a cat

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EO8-iDYffdE

  1. Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek / Crusade in Jeans

Another film of a classic children’s book, a boy goes back to 13th century to set a few things right.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uc0aM6Wtr_s

A Thank You Letter to the Strangers on the Train

14 September 2016


To the random strangers on the train,


Two months ago (July 14), I had an epileptic episode on the train traveling between Utrecht Central and Driebergen-Rijsenburg. At my most vulnerable moment, you stayed by my side and helped me.


For starters, it was clear that there was a good chance I wasn’t one of you. I’m an American of Filipino ancestry – my dark brown skin, short stature and Northern California accent a clear giveaway.  But instead of dismissing me, you all tried your best to give me solace during the most embarrassing moment of my life.


I live with epilepsy. It’s an inconvenient disorder that rarely appears, a vague constant threat that lingers around. I’m supposed to be getting plenty of rest, a solid night’s sleep, eating healthily, and avoiding epileptic triggers. Something that’s quite a challenge when you are deep in the trenches of early motherhood.


And despite my seemingly extrovert, open personality, I prefer to suffer in silence, the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality deeply ingrained in me.  


On that day, the air was the crisp kind, mingling with Holland’s soft light to make everything look clear, as if you were watching the world through a new lens. I was just coming home from an intense, but productive meeting with my co-author and Dutch publisher in Amsterdam.

I’m an aspiring writer, hoping to put words to all the wonderful (and challenging) aspects of bringing up American-Dutch kids in your country. To what the Dutch are actually getting right – raising the happiest kids in the world.


I struggled during my first few years in your country. It wasn’t easy. And it took me a really long time to get acclimated. The infamous Dutch directness and unsolicited advice initially clashed with my overly polite Asian American upbringing. Now I actually appreciate it and prefer the pragmatic style of communication. So I was high on life, finally feeling like I’m not only surviving in your country, but thriving.   


When I reached Amsterdam Centraal, I noticed that I had three minutes before my train would leave. So I sprinted. For my life. I was pleased with myself for having made it, not having to wait another thirty minutes. Then my stomach started hurting. A sense of panic rushed over me. I told myself if I just practiced some breathing exercises, perhaps I could prevent the attack from happening. I was wrong.  


Thank you for your random act of kindness. For not running away to the nearest polder when you witnessed a random foreign stranger lose consciousness, have violent muscle contractions and wet herself. Twice. You could have easily assumed, having never witnessed a grand mal seizure, that I was a tourist who had taken a bit too many liberties.


I’m hoping that these words will reach you.

With gratitude,
Rina Mae

The Grammar School Debate From the Outside

13 September 2016



For far too many children in Britain, the chance they have in life is determined by where they live, or how much money their parents have,’  Theresa May said last week, referring to the in-built inequities in the British school system. There is a gaping chasm between the quality of state schooling available in the south and what you can get in the rest of the country. And then there are the public (private) schools which are better than any of these anyway (though she doesn’t say that). You’re either rich or you’re f*cked in the UK is how many parents see it. Reform would be welcome to most.

But May’s first speech as Prime Minister promising plans for new grammar schools is causing a furore. ‘Theresa May entrenches segregation and privilege with her education reforms’, was one such headline. ‘We will fail as a nation if we only get the top 15 per cent to 20 per cent of our children achieving well,’ Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector of Schools, declared on Radio 4, underlining the typically Anglo-Saxon ambition for all children to achieve great A levels.

What’s the problem with grammar schools then? In the Guardian, Sam Freedman argues that only a tiny minority of children from disadvantaged backgrounds actually attend these schools and, really they cater for the middle classes. (Hang on: what’s wrong with the middle classes? They can’t always afford private school fees either.) He goes on to state that ‘all the top education systems in the world are comprehensive,’ which is where I get all bristly. It’s patently untrue when you consider the Netherlands which does have a selective system and scores excellently in the OECD report he himself quotes from.

The Dutch system is a great improvement on the British one and it’s one of the main attractions of life here as a parent. Born into the non-affluent middle class, I attended a small-town grammar school in the Midlands myself. It wasn’t all it was cooked up to be, as I later found out when I went to uni. The privately-educated kids were way ahead academically and it took me a couple of terms to catch up. So as I see it, if you want the best education in the UK right now you have to pay for it, grammar schools or not. The Netherlands on the other hand, has a
unified school system, paid for by high taxation. You don’t need to be rich to attend the top schools.

Dutch children attend primary school from 4 to 11 years of age and are streamed into different types of secondary schools after that. I’ll explain but bear with me, it’s complicated. There are grammar schools – ‘gymnasiums’ – which provide an academic education (VWO)  including Latin and Greek in preparation for university entrance. There are mixed schools which offer the academic stream (VWO) and the professional stream (HAVO – preparation for higher non-academic education). There are schools offering just HAVO. And there are schools providing the various types of vocational education (VMBO). That’s not all though. If you want more mobility, there are large schools that offer all of the education types, the equivalent to the British comprehensives. Children are divided into these streams around the age of 12, after aptitude tests throughout primary school, and character assessment. If a child isn’t interested in knuckling down to bucketloads of Latin and Greek, they won’t be recommended for a gymnasium. You don’t want to set them up to fail. Children who do better than expected can move up a stream.

‘Achievement’, ‘academic’ and ‘meritocracy’ seem to be the catchwords of the grammar school debate. ‘In a true meritocracy, we should not be apologetic about stretching the most academically able to the very highest standards of excellence,’ May says. ‘Every child should be given the opportunity to develop the crucial academic core.’ Everyone must achieve is the subtext and academic studies are preferable to any other kind. But it’s not like that in Holland. The Dutch school system aims to keep pupils engaged and happy and as a result achieves high attendance figures and good pass records. Although the upper middle classes can get hung up about getting their kids into gymnasiums, in general, there is no shame in going to the HAVO or attending a vocational school. The point is, the other schools provide a good education too! There’s a vocational school a couple of hundred yards from my house that teaches plant and animal science.  It’s got its own greenhouses and mini-farm out the back. My son and I often peer over the fence in envy at kids grooming ponies and planting bulbs.

The thing is, the British have become trapped in their own ideology – a utopian desire to believe that a meritocratic society might be possible, while having one of the most entrenched class systems in the world. Surely the point should not just be to build more grammar schools, but to provide a better range of education across the board and do away with the socially-divisive private school system? This seems to be what May herself wants: ‘Because if the central concern ordinary working class people have is that their children will not enjoy the same opportunities they have had in life, we need to ensure that there is a good school place for every child, and education provision that caters to the individual needs and abilities of every pupil.’ (Though she should certainly add the middle classes to the working classes.) She also makes it clear she doesn’t support the binary system of secondary moderns picking up the slack once grammar schools have taken the pick of the crop, but welcomes a more diverse selection of schools. Come and take a look at the Dutch system, I say. Don’t just build grammar schools but other types of successful schools that kids actually want to go to.

The Happiest Kids in the World, Bringing Up Children the Dutch Way

5 September 2016


It’s time to fess up. We’ve been keeping something from you. Nothing bad. We haven’t cheated on you or anything, but we thought it best to wait until everything was official. We’ve written a book and it’s called The Happiest Kids in the World: Bringing up children the Dutch way. The British edition is now available for pre-order on Amazon. Doubleday UK commissioned the book, Dutch rights have been sold to Nijgh & Van Ditmar for publication in the spring, and we have an American publisher too – The Experiment who do cool non-fiction books. They’ll be publishing next spring too.

As expats bringing up our kids here – Rina Mae Acosta is American and Michele Hutchison is British – we realized that something truly wonderful was going on. UNICEF had already confirmed our suspicions: according to the Child Well-Being Studies, the Dutch are raising the happiest children in the world. We’re talking about well-adjusted and healthy kids who rate themselves happy, get on well with their friends and parents and enjoy school. . . And these children have managed to come top the two times the comprehensive study into childhood happiness was conducted.

What exactly are Dutch parents doing differently? Could it really just be all the hagelslag, chocolate sprinkles, that Dutch kids eat for breakfast? Or perhaps it’s because of the chilled-out Dutch babies who sleep through the night and the under ten crowd who are free to play after school because they have no homework. And why isn’t anyone else making a fuss about this? Shouldn’t more parents know about this parenting style that’s actually working?




So we put our heads together to figure out exactly why Dutch children are rated the happiest kids in the world.



In the meantime, come join us on our Facebook page. And if you’d like to support us in letting more people know about our book, please do.

Stuff Dutch People Think Is Dutch

23 August 2016



I’ve long been a fan of Colleen Geske’s entertaining blog www.StuffDutchPeopleLike.com. Colleen, who is Canadian, has lived in the Netherlands as long as I have and has spent time cataloguing all the peculiarities of the Lowlands. Topics include: ‘Speaking in expressions’, ‘Impossibly steep stairs’, ‘White leggings’ and ‘Borrels’. In 2013, she self-published a book of the same title with 60 of these blog posts. It’s fun and recognizable and I definitely recommend it. Just recently I bought her follow-up book Stuff Dutch People Say, which being a linguist, is right up my street. The Dutch language is riddled with often peculiar idiom (they speak in expressions, after all) and Colleen sets about explaining where some of these things come from, as well as discussing Dutch words that have made their way into the English language (coleslaw – kool-sla, for example).  

It’s probably easier for an outsider moving into a particular culture to isolate the things that seem typically Dutch, than for a Dutch person themselves. It’s easy to assume particular behaviours or objects are normal, until a foreigner points them out to you. The same thing happens to me with Englishness sometimes.  A Dutch friend pointed out to me last week that fumbling teenage sex at a bus-stop or in the back of a parked car was not something many Dutch people had ever experienced since most of them lost their virginity at home. A more obvious example of cultural difference is English people abroad constantly having to ask for milk to put in their tea (and then: regular milk, please, not coffee creamer!).

All that said, a new book has just come out in which the Dutch have a go at explaining themselves. The Netherlands in 26 Iconic Objects, edited by Wim Brands and Jeroen van Kan and published by Uitgeverij Balans contains 26 short essays each by a different Dutch writer. I confess to having been an insider on the project since I translated two of the essays myself (‘Ice-Skates’ by Maarten t Hart and ‘Biscuit Tin’ by Maartje Wortel). Although many of the objects chosen weren’t invented by the Dutch, their adoption into Dutch culture highlights something about the natural character. In the case of the essays I translated, ice-skates were probably invented in Scandinavia but became particularly useful in a water-filled country that froze over in the winter. Skating on natural ice in a pair of noren is especially Dutch. Us Brits have got biscuit tins too, of course, but we don’t do that thing of offering our guests just a single biscuit. It’s the single biscuit that exemplifies Dutch frugality.

I’d never heard of a Bolknak (Maarten Asscher’s contribution). It turns out to be a Dutch-produced cigar for the bourgeois classes (not something us foreigners associate with the Dutch – where’s that flat society?). But it also fell out of production many years ago. Clogs, bulbs, herring carts, stroopwafels sure, but ecstacy pills? The writer Renee Kelder claims that cargo-bike mums even take them on occasion, as do Dutch people in their sixties. A ‘drugs holiday’ from the straitjacket of Calvinism. And what to think of geraniums which I always associate with the Greek islands myself? According to Bram Bakker, geraniums are a Dutch cipher for old age as it used to be – ‘sitting behind the geraniums’ as the Dutch expression goes. It’s something modern Dutch oldies wouldn’t be seen dead doing, apparently.

Dutch Youth Are Happy – What’s Going On?

22 August 2016




I’m convinced that when Pharrell Williams sang “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you”, he was actually addressing the millions of Dutch youth growing up happy. After all, Dutch children are the happiest kids in the world. And recent research from the Central Bureau of Statistics, once again confirms the sentiment. Dutch people between the ages of twelve and twenty five are quite happy and satisfied with their lives. In particular, they are quite content with:


And contrary to the infamous reputation of Amsterdam being the capital of mayhem (prostitution, alcohol, and drugs), Dutch youth are are less likely to engage in underage smoking, drinking, cannabis use and sex. Apparently, for these happy, well-adjusted and satisfied youth, being square is the latest trend.


It’s in stark contrast with the current state of affairs with their Anglophone counterparts. British teenagers are among the unhappiest – they feel they face too much pressure at school, are concerned that they are too fat, and engage in unhealthy drinking behaviors. And alarmingly, more and more American teens – about one out of nine – experience a major depressive episode.


When studies come up stating overall well being, the knee-jerk reaction is for many to simply attribute the main reason as a government with family friendly social policies. Even the Dutch are vocally envious of their Scandinavian neighbors, especially in terms of parental leave for fathers.


But here is the caveat – it simply can’t all be because of family-friendly social policies. Scandinavian countries have much more generous social policies, yet it’s the Dutch youth that come out on top time and time again.  Don’t get me wrong, generous parental benefits are quite helpful.  But I’m also pragmatic and chances are, it may take some time before this actually happens. So in the meantime, I’d love to know exactly what Dutch parents are doing right. We all can’t move to the Netherlands, but we can learn from them. What do you think are the reasons for all the happy youth in Holland?

Looking in from the Outside: Brexit for Expats

16 August 2016


I flew to Manchester last weekend for a friend’s tenth wedding anniversary. It was the first time I’d been back since the referendum. The grey-haired Englishwoman sitting next to me on the plane looked at me slightly askance when I said I’d voted for Britain to stay in the EU. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Well’, I said, ‘I live in Amsterdam. It’s a no-brainer for me. The fact I can live and work there is thanks to the EU. And there are great advantages to living in Holland. The society is less hierarchical and class-driven than the UK. There’s much less of a gap between rich and poor. And it’s the best place in the world to bring up kids. Actually, that’s why I’ve stayed – to put my kids through the Dutch state school system in a place where being happy is more important than being successful,’ I explained.

It had never occurred to her that the EU was a two-way street. Like millions of others, she’d been force-fed a terrifying polemic. Five million Poles, just waiting to get in and plunder the NHS! But the EU isn’t all about foreigners taking advantage of the British welfare state. The 1.2 million British expats living in the EU got something in return. I was taking advantage of the Dutch healthcare and education system. I’ve long benefited from the EU. I spent my gap year working in France. I learnt more than just the language. The French taught me how to dress, what to eat, how to behave in society. They turned me into a European. Three years after that, I returned to France, at Lyon university, thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme which paid for my study costs. And now I’m living in the Netherlands bringing up my happy children. It’s no utopia but the big ideas are in place.

I’ve been putting off writing about Brexit for weeks. The main reason is politics. I’m too much of a pragmatist to enjoy politics. There’s a glaring gap between big ideas and the administration of real-life politics which results in endless bureaucracy and nothing really getting done. Charles Dickens’ Circumlocution Office from Little Dorrit always comes to mind. And yes, that is one of the problems with the European Union – it requires administration. But administration and its accompanying ludicracy is a necessary evil. It’s something separate from the big idea that led to the creation of the European Union in the first place. The EU was created essentially to keep the peace in the wake of the second world war. In this, it has been largely successful. It has also been important in fostering a European identity, in creating unity (albeit flawed).

“We need to find a way to bridge from our closed groups to other closed groups, try to cross the ever widening social divides,” writes Tobias Stone in his thoughtful essay ‘History tells us what will happen  next with Brexit and TrumpI’d thought Britain was becoming more receptive to foreign ideas and cultures: Scandi-crime box sets, French parenting, Danish hygge, translated literature. But the liberal intellectuals who buy into these things are still a minority. How do you reach those people that (international) culture doesn’t reach? I’m afraid the answer is to be found in politics. Britain needs to take a leaf out of the Dutch book and figure out how to reduce social inequality. One key factor in this might be to create a more egalitarian school system. Prioritise the teaching of foreign languages. Cultivate dialogue and exchange. Value happiness above success. Big ideas, which will require administration.


Dutch School Culture of Mediocrity

12 August 2016



As an Asian American mom with a four year old about to start elementary school in the Netherlands, I’m a bit apprehensive. There is this infamous 6-minus mentality (‘zesjescultuur’) that he will be introduced to. Applying the ABCDF scale, this would be loosely translated as a grade equivalent of a D, D- or even an F. As a parent who values education, intrinsic motivation and good old fashion hard work, the Dutch school culture of mediocrity is my biggest nightmare. A fellow expat mom in a Facebook group I am part of voiced similar concerns, doubting whether or not she made the best decision for her children. A fellow Dutch parent, Ian Macdonald, responded with the best mic drop I have ever come across. His response resonated deeply with me and assuaged my fears, concerns, doubts and guilt.


In Ian Macdonald’s own words, posted with his permission:


I think that, when expats are throwing around glib terms like “the Dutch school culture of mediocrity”, they should glance around at the society they have chosen to live in and ask themselves ‘Does this appear to be a mediocre society populated by mediocre people with mediocre accomplishments, values and norms?’


Because if the answer is yes, then I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but you might just have moved to the wrong country.


If the answer is no, however, then you might consider that the Dutch educational system must be getting a lot right, even if it is getting a few things wrong. After all, this society is, to a very large extent, defined and administered by a population that is the direct product of that educational system.


If this society was permeated by the so-called zesjescultuur (6/10 mentality), then it wouldn’t bear much resemblance to the rather nice place to live that it is; and it wouldn’t have caused so many of us to objectively choose to make it our home, raise our families here and live out our futures here.


Whilst it’s arguably true that the Dutch educational system does promote the general ethos that being merely good enough is, well, good enough, that doesn’t mean that higher achievement is actively discouraged. It isn’t.


The pervasive value that is instilled in our children — and, equally importantly, the adults they become — is that they don’t have to be top of the class or the best at what they do to be (considered) worthwhile human-beings.


It’s subtle. It’s not drilled into anyone, but broadly speaking, it’s elemental to this society that there is as much dignity in manning the check-out at the Albert Heijn as there is in being prime-minister.


People are not defined in this society by how far they have risen in education or the workplace. And thank goodness for that, because countries where that *is* the case are miserable, even unsafe places to live.


You can see this reflected in the Dutch workplace, where the structure is much less hierarchical than in many other countries. The CEO or director doesn’t order people around American-style, and subordinates don’t live in fear of upsetting their more powerful superiors. The higher you are in the organisational chart, the more responsibilities you carry and the greater the rewards, but everyone typically treats each other with the same degree of respect, no matter whether they’re running the company or wheeling the cart containing the internal post.


Dutch society instills in children the supremely important value of being happy with who they are, and to find their own level; not the level their parents would like them to have, or their teachers. However, that doesn’t mean that children are left to function below their natural ability.


If every child who scored a 6 was routinely told “You can do better”, I don’t think we’d have the society of proud high-achievers that some seem to think. Rather, we’d have far more miserable and disillusioned children growing up to become miserable and disillusioned adults.


We’d have a society like the USA, which boasts the richest, most ambitious working population in the western world, but also — not coincidentally — the least happy people in the west. We’d measure ourselves relative to what others around us have achieved and accrued, rather than by considering how far we ourselves have come. We’d allow our success to be defined by what others expect of us, not by what we would otherwise be content to expect of ourselves. We’d forever be telling ourselves that we’ll be happy when our next goal is achieved, instead of being happy with who are where we are today.


Personally, I’d rather that children — not just my own, but all children in society — were content as 6’s, rather than forever sad that they hadn’t attained the 7 or higher that others had always told them they could have. Feeling like a failure and a disappointment does not make for happy, well-adjusted members of society.


I think it’s hard to take on board for people from more competitive cultures, but there really are more important things in life than striving to be the absolute best you can be at everything you undertake. There are even more important things than a university education. Lasting happiness doesn’t actually depend on either one.


Of course, some people really do naturally want to be the best at everything they do, and that’s fine if the urge comes from within, rather than being imposed from without. Children find their own level through self-belief. It’s the job teachers to fire their imagination and nurture that self-belief as it blossoms. That’s a far cry from simply repeating the mantra “You could do better.”


University is not the pot of gold at the end of the academic rainbow. it is not the be-all and end-all of young adulthood that some parents would have their children believe. It is merely one possible path, and not a path suited to each and every child, or even to each and every highly intelligent child.


Success is important, but how you define success is perhaps even more important. It’s about being happy, which is not necessarily the same thing as achieving the highest grades, followed by a place at a top university and then a high-earning job in industry.


The Dutch have got this largely right, which is why this country is still largely a nice place to live; although I must admit that I have seen a lot of dilution of its values since moving here in 1991. Then again, *everywhere* seems to be getting worse over time.


Call me a born again Dutch nationalist, but when I look at the UK and the US, I see very little that I wish this country would emulate; and that includes education.

Learn or Play in the Summer Holidays?

11 August 2016


                  Photo copyright © Maaike Koning, 2016

I remember being taken on one of the most boring summer holidays ever as a child: ‘Les Chateaux de la Loire’ it said in the brochure – the castles of the Loire Valley in France. I think we visited pretty much every one of the 140 chateaux. We were clocking up three or four a day, in any case. The countryside was dull, the Loire was monotonous and after a while, the castles became a blur. By week two, I was refusing to leave the back seat of the car, preferring to turn back to the first page of The Swiss Family Robinson and start reading the book all over again. My mum, who was a teacher, told me that I was missing out on a wonderful learning opportunity. Think of all the poor working class children who didn’t have such opportunities and would go back to school in September with a learning gap, she said.

This was my first exposure to the idea of the ‘summer slide’ as it is now known. The ‘summer slide’ is supposed to occur when children are not intellectually stimulated during the long six week holiday and forget what they have learned. It sits uncomfortably with the notion that boredom is actually good for kids. Psychologists argue that boredom allows children to develop ‘internal stimulus’ which enables the development of creativity. Are working class kids more creative then, as a result? But the idea of free-ranging bored children in the summer holidays doesn’t chime with our (middle-class)compulsion to ‘consciously cultivate’ our kids in order to give them the best start in life. It is easier to take the safe path and provide structured education in the holidays.

These days in the UK, summer tutoring is practically the norm for middle-class families, especially those who can’t afford private education and try to make up the deficit this way. Many state schools are now offering enrichment lessons over the summer holidays and there are plenty of private companies offering high level courses like Debate Chamber. Some parents even send their kids on academic courses abroad. The idea of a ‘crammer’ is nothing newIt used to be a place to retake failed GCSEs or A levels or coach children for common entrance exams. The problem is that summer education risks becoming the norm for all children, raising the stakes, and making it even more impossible for less privileged children to keep up.

The crammer concept has now blown over to the Netherlands where Education Secretary, Sander Dekker, has announced plans to introduce summer schools in which children can work on subjects in which they have fallen behind. The Netherlands has a more egalitarian school system: there is no gaping chasm between rich and poor because everyone can attend the same good state schools. However, what they do have, which the UK doesn’t have – is children having to repeat a year if their results aren’t good enough. At primary school, this seems like a good idea – a proportion of young children aren’t ready to enter the learning stream at six years old and can hang back a year in nursery grade and play a bit more. There is no shame in this. Children who learn more slowly are given a chance to go at their own pace. Gifted children can move up through the classes more quickly.

At secondary school, however, having to repeat a year can be demotivating for the student. If the child could catch up on the subjects they failed during the summer, they could proceed to the next year. It makes sense and, of course, is cheaper for the government. But I hope the Netherlands sticks with the crammer concept and things don’t go too far down the road of increasing stakes and decreasing returns. Where are my own kids this week? My son’s on a surf camp on the island of Texel and my daughter’s on a mixed sports camp in Amsterdam. Personally, I think they’ll garner more useful life skills doing sports out in the fresh air than they would in an academic environment. What do you think? What are your kids doing this summer?

Giethoorn The Fairytale Dutch Village of Your Dreams

9 August 2016



Taking “inburgering” (Dutch cultural integration) to another level, I decided to take my family to a day out in Giethoorn. Apparently, according to Buzzfeed, Giethoorn is one of the most charming places in the world to see before you die. What is it about this obscure Dutch village of only 2,620 inhabitants that has garnered so much international attention? Why is it that around 200,000 Chinese tourists flock to this unassuming, quaint town every year?  

And what better way to see and experience Giethoorn than taking a two hour private boat tour with Smit Giethoorn. Plus, I hoped to get some insider information, pseudo journalism style. Our guide Jordy was more than happy to oblige.
So here are some reasons as to why I think Giethoorn is to be considered a place where you can live out your fairytale dreams:


A Village with No Roads

Who wouldn’t want to see a village that essentially has no roads and cars? Rather, the only way to access the village is by the preferred traditional method of boats, or by bicycle. And thanks to “whisper boats” (boats with a noiseless electric engine) reigning supreme on the canals, the peace and tranquility of the Dutch countryside of Giethoorn is maintained.





Traditional Thatched-roof Homes with Perfectly Manicured Gardens

When you have a cluster of traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens on their own separate islands only reachable by boats and bridges with bike paths, it’s easy to create a once in a lifetime, breathtaking experience. And what can never be replicated, not even by Disney, are the authentic 18th and 19th century Dutch farm houses filled with local families whose roots go way back. Giethoorn is not a museum or an amusement park. it is a thriving,close-knit community which takes pride in preserving its village and sharing it with the rest of the world.


A Nod to Dutch Tradition

Giethoorn was first established around 1230 by a group of fugitives from the Mediterranean. The village evolved when locals discovered a prized treasure: peat, a precursor to coal that can be used as an energy source when dried. The canals and surrounding lakes were actually formed inadvertently as the locals extracted the peat. Hence the canals are only about one meter deep and the surrounding lakes and waterways are not that much deeper. Giethoorn exemplifies the Dutch saying “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”.


Good Old Fashion Gezelligheid

One can’t really escape describing anything Dutch without referring to gezelligheid, an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feelings of wellbeing, coziness, love, belonging, and warmth. Floating through the bucolic village on a boat with your nearest and dearest can make anyone a sentimental fool.


Giethoorn and the surrounding lake area also brings lots of nostalgia. The well-preserved homes, canals and bridges really do transport you to another time. It’s also a place where generations of Dutch children and teens spend the summer at nearby sailing camps making memories with thirty or so of their newly acquainted BFFs (sailing classmates). And naturally, it’s also the setting of wistful recollections of puppy love, random hookups and romantic happily ever afters.  





Enjoying the Chinese Tourists

The Chinese love Giethoorn so much that they are probably the reason why Giethoorn made it to the most recent international edition of Monopoly, alongside glamorous heavyweights Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Madrid and Lisbon. Their enthusiasm for Giethoorn paparazzi style is infectious. They’ve traveled thousands of miles and across several time zones just to see this unassuming Dutch village (as part of their Euro tour package of course). If that isn’t heartwarming, I don’t know what is. (Brilliant business idea to throw out there: wouldn’t it be amazing if a dim sum restaurant opened up in Giethoorn catering to the enthusiastic tourists?)


Genius Marketing

Dutch villages, towns and cities should take some notes with the brilliant marketing campaigns of Giethoorn. While Giethoorn is definitely unique in regards to having no roads, the country is littered with other villages brimming with picturesque canals, wooden bridges and traditional thatched-roof homes with perfectly manicured gardens. There are other breathtaking places in the Netherlands – the star fortified village of Naarden, for example – that remain off the beaten path or are virtually ignored by tourists.


Added bonus material we learned thanks to our Dutch guide Jordy:


Family Trees

Each house in the village traditionally has a white tree above their front door. The tree symbolizes the family. The size of the tree depends on the size of the family. The Smit family is by far the largest family in the village – their tree is so large that it needs to be against the wall of the house.


Goat Coat of Arms

The coat of arms of Giethoorn are two goat horns. Though there are no longer any goats around, it’s still a nod to how it was way back when. It is also the origin of the name of the village: Geytenhorn (goat horn) became Giethoorn.


Setting of Fanfare

An absolute must-watch Dutch comedy classic (1958) Fanfare by master filmaker Bert Haanstra takes places in old Giethoorn, way before the tourists.


And while you’re at it,  come join our Facebook page for more Dutch gezelligheid. Guaranteed to distract you at work and help you procrastinate.