When Students Went to School in the Open Air

13 October 2017

The old black and white photograph certainly leaves one with an impression: children sitting at their desks, dressed warmly in coats, hats, and gloves, each swaddled in a sitting-out bag, with their eyes turned towards a teacher in front of a blackboard. It’s a classroom without walls, a dirt floor, nature encircling them all around, and clearly cold.  It’s 1918 in an unknown place somewhere in the Netherlands and an example of an open-air school.  Apparently, the current trend of taking the classroom outdoors popular among privileged, crunchy parents in Northern Europe and the United States isn’t a new phenomenon.

The concept of taking the classroom outdoors is old school, going all the way back to 1904. It initially had darker roots – to prevent and treat the widespread rise of tuberculosis. Dr. Bernhard Bendix and pedagogue Hermann Neufert established the first of its kind:  the Waldeschule (literally forest school) of Charlottenburg, a nature area near Berlin. The classes were conducted in the woods to offer a combination of open-air therapy and a classical education to city children with pre-tuberculosis. The open-air school followed a traditional classroom setting with students who sat at their desks and a teacher in the front giving a lesson. Except there was one crucial difference: everything preferably happened outside, rain, snow or shine. 

The pedagogical premise of open-air education is simple: consistent sunlight and fresh air are essential if children are to fulfill their mental and physical potential. Teaching and learning should be conducted as much as possible outdoors.

 

                                                                                   Two open-air classrooms in the middle of the dunes of Katwijk, 1924

An open-air classroom in the middle of the dunes of Katwijk, 1924

A group of students in Amsterdam’s first public open-air school, 1925. 

 

The message resonated deeply with parents and educators, and became a movement, sweeping across the rest of Europe and North America. The Netherlands embraced the idea, establishing the first open-air school – de Eerste Nederlandse Buitenschool– in 1905 in the Hague.

Open-air schools soon were established for healthy children too. By the 1930s, the classrooms were designed for easy access to sunshine and air – outdoor terraces with big bay windows, retractable roofs, sliding doors, and lightweight furniture. The most famous open-air school in the Netherlands is located in Amsterdam, designed by architect Jan Duiker.

Marianne Johnston has fond memories of attending an open-air school in Scheveningen in 1954. “The school was good with amazing teachers. We all had our own garden, grew radish, and some flowers. Some had a porridge breakfast there, and we all had a hot meal. After lunch, we had a rest on stretcher beds. There were also turkeys wandering outside.” says Johnstone. “All the children were there for health reasons. I enjoyed it. I still like being outside and always have the windows open.”

 

Children of the open-air school Oosterpark sleeping outside, Amsterdam 4 October 1950

Undated photograph of an open-air classroom in Amsterdam


The popularity of open-air schools started losing ground in the 1970s thanks to the introduction of antibiotics and improved living conditions for many people. Although most schools in the Netherlands currently follow the model of traditional school buildings, the importance of being and playing outside is still deeply ingrained in the culture. Children get plenty of recess, and part of the philosophy of having little homework after school is to encourage child-initiated playdates, preferably outdoors. And of course, like their adult counterparts, children are expected to bike everywhere – sometimes even experiencing all four seasons on the same day.  

 

As the Dutch love to say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.”

open-air school

 What a dreamy way to learn about the seasons surrounded by trees

Photos are courtesy of the Dutch National Archives.

No Such Thing as Bad Weather: Coping with Winter Blues and SAD

12 October 2017

 

Anyone who has spent some time in the Netherlands realizes that the Dutch, like their northern hemisphere neighbors, have a complicated relationship with the sun. Or more accurately, the lack of consistent sunlight all throughout the year can be downright depressive. The Dutch are avid sun worshippers, taking any chance they can get to sit on a terrace and turn their faces towards the sun, even on days with cool, crisp, bone-cold temperatures. Deep into the winter months, the Dutch start praying under their foggy breaths and complaining out loud in vain for the sun to reappear.

 

Like many around me, autumn and winter in the Netherlands dampen my spirit, making me more socially reclusive, giving me difficulty concentrating, and making me feel anxious and overly sensitive. I indulge more, stuffing myself with Tony’s chocolates while baking apple pies and stewing poached pears.  I also have an insatiable craving for empty calories in the form of bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes, piling on generous portions on my plate. This mild form of malaise is referred to as the winter blues. A more severe form of it is referred to by clinical psychologists as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon, but a spectrum of emotional and behavioral issues linked to the seasons. And for a minority of people who suffer from SAD, their reality in the deep winter months can be debilitating.

 

It’s important to acknowledge that winter blues and SAD are real and not some fabricated #firstworldproblem. The shortening days and longer nights make it difficult for some to synchronize their circadian clock to the outside world.  

 

The positive news is that places who experience the highest levels of winter blues and SAD are considered, time and time again, to be the happiest countries to live in. After ten years of experiencing this (one of the side-effects of moving to the Low Countries), I’m empowered to slay the winter blues. Here are some coping tips, inspired of course by the pragmatic Dutch approach:

 

 

Recognize the problem

There is a lot of truth to the old age adage that “The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one.” Symptoms of SAD include hopelessness, increased appetite with weight gain, increased sleep, less energy and ability to concentrate, loss of interest in work or other activities, sluggish movements, social withdrawal, unhappiness, and irritability. If you find yourself with some of these feelings, consider going to your general practitioner.

 

Keep It Gezellig

Gezelligheid – the untranslatable Dutch word that embodies feelings of coziness, warmth, belonging and love- helps with coping with the winter blues and SAD.  The emphasis is on human connection. Think of candles, a warm cup of chocolate milk with whipped cream and being surrounded by your nearest and dearest. Call, text, or message a good friend. Try your best not to isolate yourself.

 

Invest in a Light Therapy Lamp

For some people, a light therapy lamp can do wonders to help lessen the symptoms of winter blues and SAD. According to Wirecutter, “Far from being a fringe or ‘alternative’ purported remedy for SAD, light therapy has been clinically shown to work to alleviate symptoms in over 60 studies in serious scientific publications” by helping our bodies stay on a more natural sleep-wake cycle.

 

 

 

 

Get Some Exercise
As Elle from Legally Blonde said, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.”  I’m embarrassed to admit that old school Jillian Michael videos do the trick for me. Twenty minutes of doing some exercise in the comfort of my living room without bracing the cold always make me happier.

 

Eat Healthy
A healthy nutritious diet can definitely help and actually has a strong influence on your overall mood. Consider eating low-impact carbs like unprocessed oats and legumes and high-protein foods to keep the sweet tooth cravings at bay. You really will start feeling better, I promise.

 

Go On a Sun Vacation
This idea was presented to me by my Dutch general practitioner when I was struggling with unexplainable feelings of sadness and irritability my first winter in the Netherlands. She prescribed me a take a two-week trip back home to San Francisco. Other families go on a ski holiday. Winter sun holidays are such a popular alternative among the Dutch that there’s an entire industry dedicated to offering affordable (read =cheap) getaway options.

 

Find Something to Be Passionate About
Full disclosure: The first time I did not experience winter blues while living in the Netherlands was when I was busy co-writing The Happiest Kids in the World. I was way too entrenched in the writing and editing process. Keeping yourself busy with a project that you are genuinely passionate about can really help pass the time and distract you from the reality of living in what seems like perpetual darkness. This autumn and winter, I have my heart set on improving my photography skills.

 

 

 

 

 

p.s. Come join us on our Finding Dutchland page. We promise we’ll provide enough distractions to help you procrastinate.

Photos courtesy of Niels Weiss, Ehud Neuhaus, and Mitchel Lensink.

Apples and Appelmoes

25 September 2017


“Apple tree! Apple! said two-year-old Matteo as he pointed to his older brother Bram who was preoccupied with picking an apple. “Wow….”

 

We were in the middle of an apple orchard on what was a picture- postcard perfect sunny and warm autumn Sunday morning twenty minutes away from home. We even took the scenic route among the cows, horses, corn stalks, and polders to get there.

 

To our utter amazement, rather than violently shaking the tree and branches, our five-year-old Bram was doing what he was instructed to do by the farmers – twisting the apple gently and slowly in such a way that the branches and leaves stay intact. My husband and I couldn’t have been more proud.

 

We spent a good hour just watching the two transfixed by this cherished rite of fall, getting their hands and boots dirty on a simple mission to collect the perfect apple. It was also surprisingly peaceful despite having to jostle through the crowds at the parking lot and entrance. We had an undisturbed lane of apple trees ready for their fruit to be harvested all to ourselves. And at one point, all three of my boys – husband and two sons -were happily eating apples, savoring the taste of freshly plucked fruit straight from the branch.

 

 

Apparently, the custom of recreational apple picking in September isn’t a beloved family tradition among the Dutch passed on from generation to generation. At least, not according to my thirty-eight-year-old husband nor sixty-three-year-old Oma nanny.  Apple picking seems to be a newly adopted tradition here in the Low Countries, possibly inspired by Americans, or the British.

This is quite surprising because apples and all the lovely, delicious treats they make with them –  pies, cakes, beignets, sauces, and jams – are a quintessential part of Dutch cuisine and culture. Dutch-style pancakes aren’t complete without applestroop, a thick, dark, sugary and tangy spread make out of apples. They eat applesauce with everything! I suspect it’s because homemade applesauce is often one of the first foods Dutch babies sample, and never grow out of. And of course, there’s a rich tradition and history of apple cultivation in the Netherlands. Our family’s favorite apple variety and for many people around the world is Elstar, cultivated in the Dutch town of Elst in the 1950s.  

My Dutch husband confessed that when I initially brought up the idea of going apple picking, he envisioned us working alongside farmworkers.  As exhausted as he was from work and desirous of a slow, lazy Sunday morning, he thought it a great opportunity to show our boys the realities of farm life. He was afraid, however, that in reality, it would mean him doing most of the actual physical labor while I took pictures and the boys watched. To his amazement and relief, “apple picking” was a fun, relaxed and wholesome family experience that the boys could actively take part in.

 

 

We left with two full bags – one with Elstars and the other with Goudreinet, a great bargain for only €8 and eight kilograms (eighteen pounds). We have our hearts set on putting these farm-fresh apples to good use: homemade apple pies, apple cakes, applesauce, and plenty of apples to share with friends and neighbors.

 

We look forward to going apple picking every year from now on, come rain or shine.

 

Finding Dutchland’s Recipe for Dutch Appelmoes (Applesauce)

Ingredients

4 apples – peeled, cored and chopped

*Goudreinet apples are the traditionally favored ones among the Dutch. Any crisp and mildly tart variety will suffice.

1 cup of water

*add a little more water if necessary, especially in the end

2 cinnamon sticks

1/3 cup of white sugar

 

Directions

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine apples, water, sugar, cinnamon sticks.

Cover and cook over medium to low heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, or until apples are soft.

Allow to cool and remove cinnamon sticks. If you prefer it soft and creamy, use a food processor or potato masher. If you like it with a bit chunky, it’s ready straight from the pan.

Enjoy!

 

A Note from Yours Truly (And Speaking Event)

13 September 2017

event

Hey Finding Dutchland friends and followers,

I can’t believe it’s Fall already! How has everyone been? When I started blogging in 2012, I had no idea that the ideas jotted down on Finding Dutchland would eventually lead to a book. What was evident, however, was that parents around the world all have a common desire to raise happy, self-aware, independent children. And it happens that the Netherlands is accomplishing this en masse.  To provide a complete story of parenting in the Netherlands, as well as adding another (British) perspective, Michele Hutchison came to join me.

 

As a foreigner raising two young kids in the Netherlands and married to a Dutch entrepreneur, it wasn’t all that easy co-writing my first book. The actual writing happened six weeks after I gave birth to my second son Matteo. And it had to be written in six months. It was a whirlwind experience, and staying true to my words about raising “the happiest kids in the world” – there wasn’t that much time to blog.  

Now that the intense book writing phase is long over, interviews with the press and publicity are winding down, and the kids are back in school (at least, three out of the four),  we’re excited to pick up blogging again and will be doing more speaking events.  Join Michele and me this coming Monday, September 18, 2017, at the International School of Amsterdam as we talk about what exactly the Dutch are doing right when it comes to parenting. The John Adams Institute has kindly decided to host us, and we’re looking forward to such an eventful night. At the very least, you’ll get to meet us, up close and personal. We promise we’re quite entertaining and honest (at least, we’d like to think so).

 

Thanks for your continued support. Hopefully, you’ll be looking forward to more of our musings about life, culture, and parenting in the Netherlands.

 

Love,

Rina Mae

 

p.s. If you’re curious about our behind-the-scenes Dutched reality, take a peek on our Instagram accounts findingdutchland, rinamae and michelehutchison.

p.p.s. A perfect place to procrastinate is on our Facebook page where we share random updates concerning all things about Dutch culture, the Netherlands, and parenting.

 

 

(Photo by Rosa van Ederen)

Dutch Parenting in New York

3 July 2017

Manon and her Dutch-American children

One question people often ask is how easy is it to put Dutch parenting into practice in other countries. Obviously, a lot of things are dependent on the environment in which you live. A common remark is that without a safe cycling network it’s not going to be very easy to let your kids cycle to school. Other environmental factors such as medical care, schooling, and social services also play into local parenting cultures. However, some of what Rina and I wrote about in The Happiest Kids in the World is absolutely transportable. Simple pleasures, like eating chocolate sprinkles for one, or more seriously, encouraging outdoor play, teaching independence, and easing off on the pressure to excel.

During a lively crowd discussion on this subject at our book launch in New York this spring, an attractive middle-aged woman stood up and said that she was a Dutch mother who had raised her two children in Manhattan in the Dutch way. Only after reading our book did her children, now 18 and 24, realize where she’d been coming from all this time. It was a eureka moment for them. They now knew why her priorities had been fostering independence and a sense of responsibility and why she’d seemed so laid back about some things. The Dutch woman went on to say it had been a eureka moment for her too, ‘after not even realizing where it all came from!’

Last week, Manon Chevallerau was in Amsterdam for her mother’s 90th birthday so I gladly met up with her to discuss how she’d coped with the social pressure to do things the American way and stuck to her Dutch roots. ‘It wasn’t hard, not even as a single mother, which makes it all the more of a challenge to trust your own instincts,’ she told me. ‘I just stood up for what I believed in. I did what was natural to me, following the way I’d been brought up. I didn’t really think twice about it.’ As she was saying this, I realized what an incredibly strong woman she is and how she reminds me of so many other Dutch women I know.

Dutch women have a magic mixture of self-confidence, a can-do attitude, and a hard shell that allows them not to be swayed by what others think or want them to do. It was this, more than anything else, that allowed Manon to go against the tide. British and American women seem less confident as moms. We are more conscious of how we parent and worried that others will judge us. This fits with Manon’s perception of American women, too, though it took her some time to realize it. ‘They might be less in tune with their maternal instincts because of all the social pressures,’ she offered.

 

Manon’s Downtown mother support group in 2004

Not just a Dutch-style parent, Manon has also imported kraamzorg – post-partum care – to New York and offers her services to new parents as a doula. After her daughter’s birth in 1999, she started working to assist new parents, taking care of the tired mom, helping parents set up their house and teaching them all the basics. There was a massive uptake after the post 9/11 baby boom. Although it’s a long way from free state-provided care, just putting the concept into practice can show people how valuable kraamzorg can be and start them off thinking about the need for it. ‘Being Dutch gave me the ability to bring a personal touch into my services, with guiding during breastfeeding, baby care and understanding the babies personality and cues so that new parents are able to tune into that instinct and learn to trust it and build confidence. In addition, I led the very first Downtown NYC mother and father support groups and hosted Work / Life Corporate Seminars for pregnant and new working parents,’ she said.

After living here for 13 years, I have come to value Dutch directness and a common sense approach to parenting. Manon agrees it’s a good thing, and what’s more, Dutch women are powerful. They don’t let anyone else tell them how to be. Basically, Dutch women kick ass.

The Simple Message Behind Miffy, the Beloved Dutch Character

14 June 2017

Father’s day is around the corner, and I can’t help but think of the unofficial Opa (grandfather) of the Netherlands: Dick Bruna. With nothing more than a blank piece of paper, a pencil, and a desire to entertain his young son during a rainy, seaside holiday, Bruna created Miffy, known as Nijntje (pronounced nein-che, “little rabbit”) in Holland. With his signature gray hair and mustache, round glasses, and soft-hearted nature, Bruna reminded me of a real-world version of Mister Gepetto from “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” As Gepetto-incarnate, ever so humble and kind, Bruna’s brought so much happiness to everyone who stumbled upon his work.

Bruna had an innate understanding of the world of children, creating characters, settings and rhyming storylines that were as simple as possible.  Like a wise, kind grandfather figure, Bruna celebrated what we as adults often take for granted and consider insignificant minutiae of life but are held dear to small children – getting ready for bed, preparing breakfast, celebrating a birthday, going to the beach, visiting the zoo, and riding a bike.

For many Dutch children, the Miffy books are their first introduction to reading. Ina, the ten-year-old daughter of Michele Hutchison – the co-author of our recently published book, The Happiest Kids in the World – says, “my favorite book when I was little was Miffy at the Zoo. I like how the stories rhyme.” “The writer Dick Bruna died recently and that’s really sad,” she said, clearly still remembering the sense of loss that was felt across the nation, and reverberated around the world. My husband Bram often reads the Miffy books to our two boys, and bedtime wouldn’t be complete without a stuffed Miffy doll in our almost two-year-old’s arms.

 

Bruna’s stories evoke nostalgia in parents, highlighting common, everyday experiences all children are familiar with. Getting lost in the world of Miffy and friends gives us the opportunity to re-realize that childhood (and life in general) is really all about the small, simple everyday pleasures. “I always loved the drawings; they are so simple and colorful. They made the books really special,” says Ina’s eleven-year-old friend Noor.

For children around the world, especially in Holland and in Japan, Miffy is very much alive. Her influence extends beyond the pages of the books she’s featured in.  Miffy is everywhere young children can be found: nursery decorations, street signs warning drivers to slow down, schools, museums, parks, beaches, zoos, and airports. And for many Dutch children, childhood isn’t complete without the joy of Miffy. And as grown-ups, many Dutch people can still quote their favorite Miffy books off by heart.
It isn’t hard to imagine Bruna as an honorary grandfather figure in his home country, especially in Utrecht where he was born and where he lived most of his life. Despite being a world-renowned artist who sold over 85 million copies of 100-odd Miffy books, Bruna remained an unassuming familiar fixture at a local neighborhood café in Utrecht for decades, greeting fans and familiar faces. He would also randomly appear, unannounced to the delight of children and parents, to Miffy-related performances and events. Bruna knew the secret to living a life well lived, having once been quoted, “For me, happiness is cycling to my studio very early in the morning.”


Rina Mae Acosta is the co-author, with Michele Hutchison, of “The Happiest Kids in the World How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less.”

 

 

An Interview with an English Dad Blogger

2 June 2017

Last week Jamie interviewed Rina and me about Dutch dads for his own blog. I thought it would be nice to ask him a few questions back about what it’s like raising his kids in the UK right now. It was also great to get to chat to another fellow blogger and parent.

Let’s first introduce you to our readers…

I’m Jamie Day and I write an award-winning (no, really) dad blog called A Day In The Life Dad. I’ve been blogging since August 2015… so coming up to two years. I’m dad/climbing frame/ponytail fixer/train track builder to Edie and Arlo.

I’m also the new Editor of dad blogzine Father Inc and I contribute monthly pieces to other magazines and websites.

Jamie, what got you into blogging? What’s your main line of work (or daily activity)?

I love writing and I love my children; put the two together and you’ve basically got a dad blog… My wife, Georgia was the one who actually encouraged me to start. She’d seen so many mums doing well online but noticed a distinct lack of decent dad writers, so she bullied me into giving it a go. God damn her!

What’s it like raising kids in the UK for you? Did you agree with some of the experiences my English friends described in the book? 

Things are getting better for us dads. In most places, men can now share paternity leave and there are a lot more opportunities to work from home. That said, often when I’m out with my children I find I’m the only dad there. Where are all the other dads? Hopefully not chained to their desk.

What are the main challenges English parents face, in your opinion? Did you move to the countryside to get away from some of them?

Life with kids in the UK seems to go at 100mph. Aside from day to day family life, there’s this scary social pressure of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or perhaps that should now be ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ given this pressure has emerged from social media. This competitiveness is seemingly ingrained into our British consciousness and it’s starting to get out of hand. Our children must go to a certain school, they must have expensive toys and they must wear monochrome! There’s so much pressure on parents and children, we often forget the fundamental basics of just living and enjoying life with our children. We moved out of London to the countryside for some space, more time together and just to slow down a bit.

How much freedom can you allow your kids and how much freedom do you want to allow them?

When my children are a bit older, I’d love nothing more than to allow them to disappear for the day on their bikes, like the Dutch do, so they can enjoy some freedom. My childhood was like that but sadly those days seem like a long time ago. Nowadays parents fear what might happen and unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll see a return of such independence. So in reality, I’ll try and give them as much freedom as possible, but will always have one eye on what they’re up to.

How old are your kids now and how do you and your partner share the home workload?

My daughter Edie is 4 and my son Arlo is 1. My wife Georgia works in London and doesn’t get home until late, so I have the kids morning and night, and then the weekends are spent together trying to slow down a little.

Are attitudes to hands-on dads changing much?

I don’t have to go far with the kids before I hear “you’re on daddy duty are you?” or “you’re babysitting the kids are you?” Er, no actually. It’s called parenting. Slowly attitudes are changing, but there’s a long way to go before hands-on dads are seen as the norm.

What about gender reinforcement? I see more back home than here.

My son likes to play with diggers as much as he likes to play with garishly pink dolls, and my daughter likes sword fights as much as she likes swinging from a tree. I just want them to be happy and I don’t waste my time on narrow-minded people who can’t appreciate that.

What is your next parenting goal?

Aside from getting Edie to stop waking me up at 4am? There are lots of small things, like teaching Edie to swim without arm bands and Arlo needs to start playing football soon if he’s ever going to get signed up by Real Madrid, but more importantly, I just want them to continue being happy, carefree, innocent children. In a world riddled with problems, children like them are the future.

How could British parents adopt a more Dutch parenting approach?

We should just simplify family life and enjoy spending time together. I for one am guilty of over-thinking family time and planning extravagant and expensive outings, that whilst lovely, aren’t always necessary. Time just spent simply enjoying each other’s company could be even more fun and importantly, rewarding for the children.
Follow Jamie here:
Instagram: @adayinthelifedad
Facebook: @adayinthelifedad
Twitter: @dayinthelifedad

And fellow mum or dad bloggers from around the world – we’d love to exchange thoughts and experiences with you too, so do write in.

Reclaiming Summer Vacation, the Dutch Way

1 June 2017

Summer has (un)officially arrived, or is just around the corner. Images of lazy days of children playing at the beach and bright blue skies at some exotic destination or summer camps in pristine nature come to mind. Yet the reality is, for many families, summer is a “financial and logistical nightmare“.

Most of us cannot afford to take the entire time off – ten to eleven weeks for American children and five to six weeks for the Dutch.  There’s also this unspoken, often self-imposed pressure to give our children an amazing, magical summer experience. And if we’re fortunate enough to be able to take a week or two,  there’s this pervasive idea that a ” fantastic family summer vacation” is synonymous with plane tickets, hotel stays, and (exotic) exciting destinations. Think a trip to Disneyland, lounging around Aix en Provence, an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, or doing some island hopping in Hawaii.  And with that naturally, comes the feeling of guilt and jealousy of others if we fall short of living up to these expectations.

But for the Dutch, summer is something that they all seem to look forward to without that emotional and financial baggage. After doing some (Google) research,  interviewing dozens of Dutch families, and reflecting on my own personal experience as a child and then a mother, I think I’m onto something. And I am convinced that the secret lies in embracing three complementary things: low-cost, down-to-earth activities, boredom, and Dutch gezelligheid.

 

Embracing low-cost, down-to-earth activities

What’s admirable about the Dutch is that they take pride in being cheap. They’re able to have wonderful, memorable moments without feeling compelled to break the bank. In fact, the less they spend, the happier they are and the more bragging rights they have. This summer, my family and I decided to have a staycation in the Netherlands. Be prepared for regular pictures of us at the local beach and eating our homemade sandwiches.

Some suggestions are:

Camping

Nothing screams a Dutch holiday than camping. Whether it’s doing it the classic way of pitching up your own tent, going all out on a caravan, or glamping. Camping is a beloved Dutch institution that crosses all socioeconomic lines. There are even camps in France, Spain, and Italy that cater to the Dutch clientele, providing them with Heineken, Dutch farmer’s cheese, peanut butter, and their favorite brand of toilet paper.

Playing Tourist in Your Homebase

I love playing “tourist” in the area of where I live. A trip to the local ice-cream shop, library, park, nature reserve, beach,  a museum can be glorious.  

Bonus if you live in the Netherlands or have easy access to the Low Countries
One of the best-kept secrets in the Netherlands is its white sand beaches. Castricum aan Zee, Zandvoort, Bloemendaal, and Scheveningen are our favorite, family friendly beaches to go to

 

Embracing Boredom

In an ideal world, I would love “boredom” to be the next parenting trend (second, of course, to going Dutch).  According to research (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-21895704), ” Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.” Boredom, or more accurately, unstructured time facilitates this.

 

Dutch parents believe in the gift of boredom. For them, it means allowing children to simply play outside in their living rooms or the garden, or with neighborhood children out on the streets left to their own devices.

 

Dutch Gezelligheid

“Gezelligheid” is an untranslatable word that encompasses the feeling of coziness, warmth, love and belonging. It’s similar to the trendy Danish Hygge in that it embraces the idea of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. What puts Dutch gezelligheid above its Danish cousin Hygge is that gezelligheid is primarily focused on relationships, on spending time together. Gezelligheid is done with other people, not on your own. Let that sink in for a moment. Gezelligheid is really is about relationships and nurturing the ties that bind. Think sharing stories over a campfire, running around the sprinkler on the grass, baking a birthday cake, having pancakes for dinner.  It’s all about the quality of time spent together as a family.  And though we all live busy lives, if we can give them at least twenty minutes of our undivided attention regularly, it goes a long way.

 

Children, especially in the early years, won’t remember the details of their summer vacation but rather how they felt when they were with their parents. Recently, British child psychologist Oliver James even went as far as to suggest that taking your children on foreign holidays is bad for their mental health. Though I don’t personally agree with him in that regards, I do think there is a lot of truth when he argues that “children are easily pleased by the simple things”.


And more often than not, it’s the simple things – often that are free or don’t cost too much – like playing hide and seek at home, dancing and singing along their favorite songs, or having a picnic in the backyard, are what children consider magical. In fact, it’s all about simply spending time with each other. Dutch parents place a lot of emphasis on family togetherness, on simply being present with their children. This is what the concerted effort goes into – not the details of the actual vacation.

 
P.s. Does this resonate with you? Any chance you may be inspired going Dutch, parenting-wise? Well, we wrote a book about it.

 

 

Where There Are No Valedictorians

24 May 2017

 


Being class valedictorian is an honor for most families around the world. Graduating at the top of the class seems to be every parent’s dream come true – an official title bestowed to being the best and the brightest, with promises of a wonderful, successful life ahead.

Everywhere, it seems, except for the Netherlands. There simply is none. There is no broadcast system (award ceremonies) at school assemblies. Children and teenagers here are not ranked.  As my co-author, Michele Hutchison writes in our book, “In the Netherlands, however, it isn’t all about getting straight As and getting into the right university. Education here has a different purpose. It is traditionally seen as the route to a child’s well-being and their development as an individual.There are two kinds of higher education qualifications here: research-oriented degrees offered by universities and profession-oriented degrees offered by colleges.” Hutchison explains that in Dutch high schools, there is constant testing and grades, but they are not comparative, i.e., no ranking or position in the class.

So imagine my surprise and amusement when I stumbled upon Eric Barker’s Time article “Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows.” Barker posits: “But how many of these number-one high school performers go on to change the world, run the world, or impress the world? The answer seems to be clear: zero.”

According to Barker, there are two simple reasons: “First, schools reward students who consistently do what they are told. Academic grades correlate only loosely with intelligence (standardized tests are better at measuring IQ). Grades are, however, an excellent predictor of self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the ability to comply with rules.”

Granted, the sample size of the research study to make such a sweeping statement is quite small – only 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians were involved. Yet, the conclusions intuitively make sense. The current school system, after all, has clear rules and set expectations of accomplishments. Life and the real world is a lot messier with a lot more uncertainties and variables. Academic achievement in school does not necessarily correlate to achievement in life.

Karen Arnold, a researcher involved in the study Barker quoted, says,  “Many of the valedictorians admitted to not being the smartest kid in class, just the hardest worker. Others said that it was more an issue of giving teachers what they wanted than actually knowing the material better.”

Not all of us can just pack our bags and move to the Netherlands. What we can do as parents, however, is start seeing our child for who they are. So chances are if your child isn’t going to be valedictorian – which is highly more like the case because there can only be one – don’t be disappointed. What’s most important is helping your child discover their interests and passions. And isn’t having a happy, self-aware, resilient and curious child the best way to help them lead successful, happy lives in the future?

Foto above of my two boys at the University of California Berkeley, my alma mater 

How the Happiest Kids in the World Celebrate Their Birthdays

13 April 2017

happiest-kids-birthday-party

Children’s birthday parties carry a lot of emotional baggage for parents across the pond.Where I come from, parents, especially moms, are expected to throw the perfect birthday bash for the special snowflake(s) in their life. This includes intensive planning at least three months ahead, picking a theme, coming up with giveaways, entertainment and spending a fortune. There’s even a market for children’s event designers who go beyond just being party planners because they create custom experiences rather than generic events. This is all based on the premise that we want our precious bundle of joy to feel loved on his special day. And of course, in the air is that unspoken “friendly” mompetition. Whether the pressure is self-imposed, culturally expected, or an unhealthy mix of both, a lot of parents are under pressure to execute the perfect birthday party.
When did children’s birthday parties transform into these elaborate affairs? How did we actually get here? I readily bought into the idea that the more neurotic I was about all the imaginable details of my child’s birthday party, the more I could prove to my child and the world how much I loved him. It simply became second nature to me.

 

Rather, there’s a lot of anxiety, fear of disappointing their child, and being judged by other parents. No wonder that for many, modern parenting has become all joy and no fun.

 

So when I discovered that middle-class Dutch parents are still throwing birthday parties reminiscent of the 1970s and 80s, I was intrigued and to be honest, a bit hesitant. A child’s birthday party here still consists of cake, maybe a few snacks, a couple of presents under €15 and the chance for the kids to run around. After my oldest son’s first birthday party extravaganza (a Nijntje theme affair with over hundred people in the Chapel hall of the Utrecht Central Museum, complete with a catered buffet of 12 courses and a dessert bar), I started to have a change of heart. He’s a highly sensitive boy who prefers the more intimate setting of a Dutch birthday party – cozy and in the comfort of his own home. And if I was really honest with myself, the party was more to fulfill my aspirations of becoming a domestic goddess.

 

Now that I’m a working mom of two, I just don’t have the time and energy to go all out either. Not to forget to mention that most of our disposable income goes towards rent, food, and clothes.

 

Here are Some Tips on How to Throw a Classic (Dutch) Children’s Birthday Party


Limit the number of guests to the child’s age
It might initially seem a bit heartless not to invite the entire class and all the neighborhood kids, but keeping the number of guests small is guaranteed way of ensuring a down-to-earth, low-key affair. Also, the guests spend no more than ten euros on a gift, so there’s no competition or pressure there.

Limit the number of hours
Two hours of celebrating are more than enough. The idea is not to make it exhausting and overwhelming for the child.

Flag banners for decorations
Either make them yourself with your child or invest in some good quality flag banners that you can use for future parties (and other celebrations). For the Dutch, nothing screams “birthday” like hanging a flag banner.

Procure a cake and don’t forget the birthday candles
Either bake a cake with your child or allocate the cake baking to the local cake expert. A lot of children love baking, and you’re creating memories with them.

Sing Happy Birthday and blow out the candles

This is the anticipated highlight of any children’s birthday party – the Happy Birthday song and blowing out the candles. It’s really that simple. It’s worth mentioning that the Dutch have an affinity for getting into a circle formation whenever they get together. I suspect it’s intentionally done to make sure everyone feels included.

Bonus points
Dutch school teachers traditionally make the children paper birthday crowns. The kids love them because it makes them feel like royalty for the day (as seen in the picture above). You can make it a family tradition too!

 

The moral of the story is that children’s birthday parties should be something that we all look forward to without anxiety. If you’re one of the perfect moms of the internet and have the privilege of time, energy, and financial resources at your disposal – rock on with your budding Martha Stewart self! I’d love to follow you on Instagram (seriously!). But if you are lacking in some of these areas, or just simply can’t be bothered, keep in mind that low-key birthday parties are how the happiest kids in the world celebrate their special day.
Regardless of how you decide to celebrate your child’s special day, what’s most important is that your child knows that she is loved.  A great way is by focusing on the aspects of togetherness, and letting your child know how much they mean to you. The goal is to make it a gezellig atmosphere – an untranslatable Dutch word that embodies the feeling one gets when they feel love, and a special connection with others around them. A simple hug, the words “I love you,” and “Happy Birthday” go a long way. And I’m convinced that’s what children remember the most…