Op Camp – How Dutch Secondary School Kids Learn Grit

16 September 2017

(Photo by Alaric Hartsock )

In The Happiest Kids in the World, we wrote about how Dutch children toughen up by cycling to school and playing sports in all weathers. Things are taken to the next level at secondary school as I recently found out.

The tradition of going away on school camp starts as early as six or seven at primary school. By the time they are teenagers, Dutch children are well used to spending time away from their parents. And not only from their parents, they also have to leave their telephones and all electronic devices home too. Camps are an important step in growing in self-confidence and independence and bonding with classmates in a low-key environment.

I didn’t see the episode of Modern Family in which the mother dumps her oldest child without money or telephone leaving her to find her own way home so she has something to write about on her college application until after Rina had written about it in our book, but I’ve caught up on it since. The daughter gets home alright, but boy she’s mad at her mum. The Dutch have a similar tradition, hilariously called a dropping. (I once had to edit a text written by a Dutch person who’d simply called these ‘droppings’ in English. ) Ben’s third-year camp started with a ‘dropping’.

Having packed a big rucksack with camping gear, Ben set off for school on his bike on Monday morning. The children were taken by coach down to South Limburg, split into groups of four or five and randomly dropped at places in the countryside. They had maps, a compass and one emergency phone in a sealed envelope per group. They were to make their own way to a campsite.


Meanwhile, storms were raging all across the country and would continue to rage for the days to come. I spent the time feeling terribly sorry for my son who would be drenched I was sure. I also wondered whether their tents would actually be swept or washed away and how they would deal with that. I wasn’t particularly worried that he wouldn’t cope since at thirteen Ben is strong, hardy and independent. A typical Dutch teenager, as I pride myself.

He duly arrived back on his bike on Wednesday in the late afternoon wearing the same clothes he’d set off in. What was it like? I asked. ‘Oh fun, and also not,’ he said wryly. None of the kids had been very good at putting up the tents and every night they’d all blown down. They hadn’t been able to get them back up in the dark and had simply slept in the collapsed tents. I couldn’t help but laugh at the image this brought to mind. His group had arrived at the campsite within a couple of hours, but other groups hadn’t got there until much later. And they’d also got lost again the next day on a mountain biking ride. At one point, they’d stood waiting for help and a group of teachers had driven past them waving cheerily. They hadn’t been able to get them to stop. Teenagers can look after themselves, if only you give them the chance.

‘Oh, Mum,’ Ben said then. ‘I was the only one not to be taken to school and collected in the car, with all this heavy stuff, you know.’

‘Oops,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to know just how Dutch I should be.’