5 things I’ve learned since working with child refugees

Everyone remembers those harrowing images of 3 year old Alan Kurdi’s tiny little body being washed up on a turkish beach. A wake up call for many Europeans who, despite the unrelenting bombing and human rights violations occurring daily in Syria, had felt themselves up until that point, so far removed from this modern day tragedy.

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For almost a year now I’ve been privileged enough to spend 1 afternoon a week with refugee children, holding a craft and questions session at their temporary school, next to their temporary home (an old office block). During this year I expected I would be able to help teach the children about life in the Netherlands, but what transpired is that these children have taught ME more than I thought possible.

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1. They don’t all come from Syria

After all the news coverage of the horrific civil war in Syria I expected all the children that I would come into contact with to be from this area. However I was totally wrong. Whereas Syrian kids do make up a large percentage of the group I work with (normally between 30-40%) the rest are from a huge spectrum of countries, with the second largest group being from Eritrea followed by Iraq, Iran,  Afghanistan, Macedonia, Turkey and Egypt.

This melting pot of different cultures and languages could make for a highly volatile situation, but these are children remember. They communicate through playing, swapping ideas, and helping each other. Language is secondary at this age. But that’s not to say that they don’t pick up it in an incredibly short space of time.

 

2. They learn the language super fast

Imagine having your house bombed, losing everything, then being re-homed to a complete different country in which you are expected to start school straight away. Oh and learn a new language. And yet these kids manage it in such a short period of time. Within weeks these children know basic words and after a couple of months the dutch conversation really flows. In fact many of them can sniff out my english accent a mile away and either start conversing with my in my native language or start giving me grief about why my dutch isn’t better after living here for so long ( in my defence it’s only been 4 years!!)

3. The asylum process is long

It appears simple. You flee your homeland because of war or fear of persecution. You get yourself to a safe country, tell them your story and trust that they can help you. But this is just the beginning. As part of working with the children I was expected to take part in a course covering the basics of the Asylum Procedure. If after the first 14 days of arriving in the Netherlands they get an ‘asielvergunning’ that means they are able to stay in Netherlands and apply formally for their right to stay here. This process can take up to a year, sometimes even longer, and during this time refugees are moved to a ‘central asylum seeker centre’, buildings that used to be prisons, convents or office blocks, and wait for their application to be approved. Or not in some cases.

A short video (in dutch) explaining the asylum procedure

4. Not all children are poor

It always angered me when people would judge those refugees crossing borders, climbing fences, and trying to board lorries who were pictured with mobile phones in their hands. It would always be the same comments ‘Well it can’t be that bad if they still have their mobile.’ Like fleeing your country which is in the midst of the worst civil war the world has seen, and poverty should go hand in hand. If the Netherlands was suddenly bombed now many of us would try our best to grab a handful of our possessions, including a mobile, which may be are only link to the outside world. Quite a few of the older Syrian children that I come into contact with have phones (though they aren’t supposed to bring them to school, but somehow they end up in their pockets!!). Some of these kids have family members still living in Syria, and apps such as whatsapp, facebook and insta mean they can still keep in contact.

Before the war, Syria was a bustling developing country, with a beautiful mix of old and modern buildings. The people who lived there had a wide variety of jobs, such as engineers, doctors,  and teachers. They even had shopping malls! Their home situations can be said to widely differ from those coming from 3rd world countries, such as Eritrea.

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Al-Shuhadaa Square in Syria before the war

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A snapshot of Eritrea

Most of the children coming out of Africa have spent a long time in different refugee camps and many have clothing not suitable to the cold dutch winters. These kids you see wearing thick socks with flip flops rather than a sturdy pair of boots and jumpers two sizes too big or small (you take what you can out of the charity shop pile).

But as in all walks of life there will always be a divide between those who have money and those who don’t, refugees are no exception. And what it makes you realise is that money doesn’t count for much when you are fleeing for your lives.

5. They are incredibly grateful.

In a world where we try to give our children everything we can, whether that be the latest gadget, the best trainers or amazing experiences or holidays, sometimes gratitude can be lost. And that’s not a slight on parenting styles or a dig that Westerners spoil their children too much, just an accurate observation.

These children walk into our class on a tuesday afternoon with the biggest smiles on their faces. It’s not a compulsory lesson, they can speak whatever language they want, and they just get to be kids and have fun with the limited resources available to them.

These children are told that Sinterklass (the dutch version of Santa) is not real, it’s a myth, because they will be receiving no presents on December 5th like other children all over the Netherlands. But does that dim their smiles? No, they are so happy to be able to take part in the festivities, dance around to all the songs  and make miniature versions of Piet & the Sint to take home. They are just so grateful to be here.

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When the commercialism of the holidays seems overwhelming, it’s nice to be reminded that for some children this Christmas, and not just refugees,  having a roof over their heads and a place to learn and just be a child is more than enough.

 

If you would like to volunteer for Vluchteling Werk Nederlands please follow this link 

 

 

 

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Duinrell Review

Being married to a TN’er (typical nederlander) means I’m constantly on the lookout for a bargain. And there’s no better bargain than a holiday one! So when I heard through the powers of facebook that BreakFree Holidays were offering cheap breaks in my adopted homeland I knew exactly where I wanted to book. Duinrell.

 

What is Duinrell?

Duinrell is a holiday park, theme park and water park all rolled into one. We visited here in the October half term, staying for 4 nights. We had booked through BreakFree Holidays for the bargain price of £230. Looking on the official website for the same dates (albeit staying in chalets as opposed to a caravan) we wouldn’t have seen change from £600!

Bearing in mind how little we had paid my expectations of our holiday were considerably low. I’d never visited the theme park before though my husband had visited both the park and water park about 25 years previously and remembered it being ‘ok’.

But I needn’t have worried. Our trip more than surpassed my expectations and we ended up having a truly wonderful holiday.

Location

The whole complex is located on the edge of the dutch village Wassenaar. It is situated in Western holland so very handy if travelling by boat to the Hook of Holland or flying in to Amsterdam Schiphol airport.

Being on the west side means you have access to some great beaches such as Scheveningen, Katwijk, Noordwijk and Wassenaar Beach.

It is also only a 15minute drive to The Hague, where the dutch parliament buildings are housed. Leiden, a beautifully historic town, is only 20 minutes drive. And perhaps our favourite of all day trips was Madurodam. Located in The Hague, this is more than just a miniature village. It’s a fully immersive tour through dutch history and a celebration of all that is great about The Netherlands.

Facilities

The holiday park is located on the outskirts of the amusement park, though it’s handy to know that when the theme park closes you are still able to walk through the park to access facilities on the other side, without having to take a massive detour.

The theme park itself is great fun for all ages. We especially enjoyed the Dragon Fly roller coaster, which my youngest was just tall enough for at 100cm. Being a huge DisneyWorld fan I set my expectations quite high when it comes to theme parks and whereas Duinrell is no where in that league, it does have some pretty decent attractions, and no I wasn’t brave enough to go on ‘Mad Mill’!

There are a number of food places available, such as snack bar that does takeaway pizza, La Place restaurant, buffet restaurant and also a well stocked supermarket. We personally found the food to be quite expensive and not the best quality.

The on site shop was very well stocked (except for one morning when they ran out of pain au chocolates) but we found it to be also overpriced. So we took the great advice of many before us and ventured into Wassenaar village and shopped at the local Jumbo.

The arcade is good fun and not badly priced at 1 euro per game. We never got to go bowling or hire bikes, but both are available at Duinrell.

Don’t forget to take a passport size photo of yourself which you need for access into the holiday park and water park. It doesn’t actually need to be a proper passport photo, I just trimmed up some photos I had lying around of us all into roughly the same size as a passport photo!

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Accommodation

As we had booked through BreakFree Holidays we were allocated a Eurocamp 3 bed 1 bath Esprit. Having read that these were somewhat older models, I was apprehensive. And yes the caravan was starting to show its age but it was spacious for our family of 5 and it had a huge deck which I can see in warmer weather being a fantastic addition.

What I loved most about the accommodation was how much room we had outside! Now we could have been just lucky but looking around, no one is crammed in. Every caravan or lodge/chalet had plenty of outside space. You are allowed to drive cars on the site but are expected to park them at the ample group parking spaces located all over the park.

Our caravan was opposite one of the entrances to the park, which meant we could roll out of bed at 9:50 and be on our favourite DragonFly at opening.

It seems that the cheaper the accommodation, the closer to the theme park you are. This absolutely did not bother us as we were happy to be able to nip back to use the toilet or grab something to eat, and we never had any problems with noise. However I can imagine that is not the same for all caravans, and those located nearer to the plaza may have some noise at nighttimes.

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Food

This is perhaps the only slight disappointment we encountered on our trip. The food offerings, whilst ample, were not the best quality and over priced.

We ate at the La Place restaurant, which is a self service type eatery, and also ordered food from the snack bar. Both experiences were a let down. Many tourists coming from the UK do so using only public transport, so leaving the site to do a big food shop or eat out is not possible. In my opinion Duinrell need to up their game when it comes to food offering. I don’t mind paying a slight premium but then I expect good quality. However there’s nothing to stop you hiring bikes and cycling off site in search of decent food!

We ventured out twice into Wassenaar for dinner and ate at two very nice Italian restaurants. My advice would be to utilise transport and eat out of Duinrell!

 

The Tiki Bad

Worthy of it’s own paragraph, the Tiki Bad is quite possibly the best water park in the Netherlands. With 16 different water slides, a dedicated kids and baby area, as well as a wave pool, this pool caters to everyone.

Be aware that there are height restrictions for many of the slides, and also for the use of armbands. My 6 year old son, who has his Swim Diploma, had to wear armbands due to being under 120cm. You can imagine his older brother’s delight when this happened!

The swimming pool opens at 10am and as we had booked through a third party (Eurocamp/BreakFree) we had to pay. We opted for 3 hours pool use for 6.50euros per person. If you book your holiday direct  through Duinrell you are entitled to two hours free pool time (during certain hours) per day.

My advice would be to get there early! We were in the pool at 10:05 and my oldest son and husband had done most of the rides without queueing, in the first 30 minutes. Leaving at lunchtime we could see just how busy the pool had become and were glad we got here early to enjoy the relative peace.

Overall Experience

Despite the disappointment with food we really enjoyed our stay here. There is literally something for everyone. We were very lucky with the weather which meant we usually spent our mornings in the theme park and the afternoon’s exploring the surrounding cities and attractions. And despite it being a school holiday the park didn’t feel too busy due the clever lay out of all the attractions.

The kids still talk about Duinrell and can’t wait to go back and make more rude gestures in the Shadow House!

 

 

5 reasons why the Dutch cycle without bike helmets.

There are many shocking sites you see when it comes to the dutch and bicycles. There are the ones carrying up to 4 children at a time; others managing to ride whilst their dog runs alongside attached by a lead; some holding onto another empty bike and others carrying two huge bags of shopping and still managing to wave to their friend as they cycle past. But perhaps the most shocking site of all is the lack of protective head gear. 

 

It may seem alien to an expat who has just moved to the Netherlands that the majority of the cycling population do not wear a helmet. Most countries in the western world, whilst it is not illegal, take a stern view on cycling without a helmet. So why is it then that the Dutch, a leading country when it comes to innovation and forward thinking ideas, still refuse to wear a helmet…

1. Other road users are more aware of cyclists

Over 27% of all trips are made by bicycle. So that means wherever you are in your car (except the motorway of course), you will almost always be sharing some part of your journey with a cyclist.

And this has remained so for years and years, so all those 17 year olds taking their driving licence will have watched their parents, and grandparents sharing the road with their two wheeler comrades, and know exactly how to act when they are around cyclists.

Compare this to the UK where only 4% of journeys are taken by bike and you can begin to understand why dutch car users are so used to sharing the road, which in itself leads to a lot less fatalities.

Despite the recent headlines stating that Cycling is now more dangerous than driving’ thanks to a report from Statistics Netherlands, director of  the Institute for Road Safety and Research (SWOV) Peter van der Knaap argues that cycling is in fact becoming safer due to the Dutch cycling so much and to a much older age.

 

2. No one wears a helmet whilst walking…

Ok so it sounds a bit of a weak argument but it’s true! Head injuries aren’t just dangerous when you are cycling. They are just as likely in the car as on a bike, with most head injuries happening whilst walking. Falls are responsible for almost 50% of traumatic brain injuries in the USA. And yet there is never a debate on whether helmets in cars should be compulsory or when heading out for a summer’s stroll.

And in fact there has been research which states that biking with helmets may make the car drivers take MORE risks, as they no longer see the cyclist as being vulnerable, especially if it is a man. So fellas if you insist on wearing head gear then its probably safer to also borrow your wife’s dress at the same time.

3.Helmets can be ineffective

Many Dutch people argue that bike helmets are restrictive and can actually obstruct the vision of a cyclists, making it difficult to quickly look over you shoulder to check the traffic, or make a sharp right turn without hitting anyone. And to further back up this theory that bike helmets are about as much use as a chocolate teapot when it comes to bike/car collisions, along comes Theo Zeggers, a traffic consultant for Fietsersbond who had this to say:

‘If you are hit by a car on your bike there is no helmet that will protect you. There is actually no bike helmet ever developed that will protect you against the kind of dangerous impacts you experience at high speeds. It is impossible to make such a helmet and I don’t think one will ever be developed.’

 

So helmets may be fine when having a collision with another cyclists, but if you get hit by a car- a helmet will not make a difference. A very controversial statement!

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4.They get bike and traffic lessons at school from as young as 5.

‘Verkeerslessen’ or traffic lessons start in school as young as Groep 2 (that’s from about 5 years old). It may just begin with running around the playground and knowing that red means stop and green means go but the idea of obeying traffic regulations is indoctrinated at a very young age. The older they get, the more complicated the lessons become and then before you know it (around 8 years old) they no longer require cars or buses to go on school trips- they all just go by bike!! Imagine the health and safety headache that would give the teachers in the UK!!

Warning kids- please never cycle like this. 

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5. They don’t want to become obese!

As you can imagine, cycling every day (the dutch manage at least 70minutes per week!) means they’ve definitely earned their frikandel and fries at the weekend. In fact all this cycling and fresh air means dutch people have a half year longer life expectancy and 6500 deaths per year are prevented according to a 2015 study quantifying the benefits of cycling in NL   .

So what would happen if the Government suddenly decided to introduce compulsory helmet use? According to cyclinguk.org enforced helmet laws in some countries have caused a huge reduction in cycle use, for example in Western Australia bike use has dropped by around 30% since the introduction.

Who knows what would happen in NL if the Government introduced a similar law. It’s possible that it would put people off the many short cycling trips they take if they didn’t have their helmet with them, drastically reducing the amount of minutes a person cycles per week which could mean that they no longer earn that frikandel and fries.Image result for frikandel

The dutch seem to be more focused on implementing good biking practice (such as no drunk cycling or biking whilst apping) and investing huge sums of money into properly lit bike paths, than promoting helmet use.  And with the lowest number of cyclists killed per mile travelled in the world the dutch must be doing something right

What going to a naked Dutch sauna is really like

Yes you read that right. Stark bollock naked. No bikini, no swimsuit, nada. But don’t be alarmed if your work colleague or mum friend from school suggests a visit. Visiting a sauna or spa in the Netherlands can actually be a really fun, liberating experience. Read on for my own personal experience of this typically dutch pastime.

The facilities are amazing

I have been lucky enough to visit a few different dutch saunas* in my 4 years here and I have to say these places are amazing. They are normally set in their own grounds with beautifully appointed changing areas (mixed of course), a huge varieties of swimming pools, steam rooms, jacuzzis, and of course saunas (finish, infrared, salt, asian, four elements, himalayan etc). They also normally have these ‘relax rooms’ equipped with full size beds and blankets that you can just go and take a nap on.Image result for nap time

But don’t panic that the bed mate before you has lain there starkers, everyone gets issued with a bathrobe and slippers (or you can take your own) and in the public areas MOST people will keep their robe on, and only disrobe to actually go into the sauna, steam room, pool etc. Though you do get the odd few who like to walk around the whole time in their birthday suit, but for me it can get a little chilly walking from sauna to sauna especially as many are set over huge grounds outside.

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They have nice restaurants and bars set in the grounds

Most of the spas I’ve been to have a selection of restaurants and bars dotted over the facility, which means you get to enjoy a glass of wine and some fried dutch snacks, or something healthier if you prefer (some spas even offer three course meals or a full buffet- you know how the dutch just love a buffet). And the best bit, you are all sat around munching on your goodies in your bathrobe, you don’t even need to get changed! Just imagine tucking into your portion of bitterballen knowing your own bitterballen are hanging free. Win Win!

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No cameras allowed

No need to worry about voyeurs and weirdoes who secretly try to film you lying back legs akimbo (please don’t do this!!) in the sauna. There is a strict no mobile phones/cameras allowed policy which they will enforce. Plus the age range in these spas tends to average more in the higher figures, many of whom who still have no clue how to work a Nokia 7710 let alone the latest camera phone.Image result for no cameras allowed

Your body confidence sky rockets

The first time I went to a naked sauna I’d not long given birth by c-section and was incredibly self conscious that everyone would be staring at my scar (as well as my dimpled thighs and rather large Kim K like derriere). But I seriously needn’t have worried. Because when everybody is naked you actually realise that in REAL LIFE everybody looks different, but also exactly the same. We all have boobs and vajayjays, willys and bums. Some are saggier, some are bigger, some tummies are rounder, some legs are slimmer. But who gives a shit. I walked out of that spa feeling 10ft high and could see for myself where that dutch confidence comes from.

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*Word of advice- when picking a spa or sauna to visit I tend to always go that little bit further away, as no matter how confident I am I have zero desire to see my kids school teachers/bank manager/mother in law whilst we are both naked, and having to chat pretending like we’re not .

 

9 things you need to know about starting Primary School in the Netherlands

Or as it’s called out here Basisschool. If you’ve just moved here with your soon to be 4 year old and are wondering how to navigate the early years education system in NL or are just curious at how primary school compares to the UK then look no further.

1. Kids start school the day after they turn 4

This is perhaps the biggest difference to the UK education system. There is no single intake date, as soon as your child turns 4 they are welcome to join Group 1 (the first year of primary school). However it must be noted that school is not verplicht compulsory  until the child turns 5 and most schools allow you to be flexible with the school hours if you think that your child is finding it too much. Also holidays can be taken during term time without issue as they are not legally required to be at school.

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2. It’s not full time

This was a strange one for me to get my head around, having experienced primary school myself in the UK where I was expected at school for 9am and was picked up by my parents at 3:15, Monday to Friday. In NL most primary schools can pick their own hours which follow a similar pattern which has 3 full days (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday) and two half days (Wednesday and Friday). Some primary schools however extend the half days to three quarter days as the child progresses up the year groups, so instead of finishing at 12:30, your child would then finish at 2pm.

I actually struggle with this timetable as wednesday and fridays just feel like really long days with the boys finishing at 12:30. Having said that though, almost everybody plays a sport outside of school and therefore the two half day afternoons are normally taken up with swimming lessons and football/tennis training.

It means that its a lot easier to plan a weekend away with the schools finishing so early and it also gives the kids a break, because being in school full time so young must be absolutely exhausting (many adults struggle with a monday to friday 9-5 routine and that’s only two hours more than what is expected from a 5year old).Image result for tired

3. They come home for lunch

And if having two half days off a week isn’t enough to recharge the batteries, then coming home every day for lunch certainly will! Yes you heard that right, the kids come home for lunch- for an hour! We live walking distance to the school so it’s not actually a hardship to walk back and forth 4 times a day but it does mean that your days at home are actually really short. I actually had to give up ironing as by the time I got the ironing board out and started on the pile I had to be back at school again to pick up the boys (to be honest I’ve never done it but this sounds like a great excuse to use 😝).

For the parents that work there is always a TSO, a 3rd party organisation that comes into the school and supervises the lunch hour. There is no canteen and so packed lunches are needed. This isn’t free though, ours costs 2.50 euros. I have been known on occasions to ship the kids off with a packed lunch to school just so I can GET SHIT DONE.

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4. There are no lunchbox police

Following on from above, if you do have a child who stays at school for lunch then you don’t need to panic if it was a last minute decision and there’s no more humous and pita wraps left in the fridge. Dutch kids eat chocolate sprinkles on white bread for breakfast so putting a choccy biscuit in their lunch box won’t be seen as committing child abuse over here. One of my son’s is the world’s fussiest eater and goes to school with two chocolate spread sandwiches, a babybel and a biscuit. And that’s it. The dinner ladies at school don’t actually want you to overload their lunchboxes, and it’s actually hard to find a normal size lunch box over here, they are all mini versions (sorry for your squashed sandwich Sid!)

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5. Kids wear mufti everyday

There is NO school uniform. No last minute rush on the 31st August looking for a white shirt and trousers that actually fit. No panic washing on sunday night. No labelling! Just normal clothes. The exact same clothes that my boys wear at the weekend. The biggest downside is the amount of jeans and trainers that we go through, I don’t think my boys own pair of trousers without a hole in the knee.

When I tell my dutch friends about school uniform they find it hilarious. It’s a concept that they just can’t get their heads around, forcing everyone to look the same. I was always brought up to see that as the advantage of uniform, no one would be singled out for wearing the wrong thing. But what I’ve noticed in NL is that the whole idea of not fitting in isn’t a thing. The dutch have a saying ‘Doe maar normaal dan doe je al gek genoeg’ which translates to just be yourself because that’s crazy enough.

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6. The first two years are just play based

Probably very similar to a UK pre school rather than the first two years of a primary school, Group 1 and Group 2 are just about learning through play. They start to learn the alphabet in Group 2 (equivalent to year 1) but will only learn about half of the letters. The ‘real’ learning begins in Group 3, in which they will finish learning the alphabet and then start to put together letters into words.

The most important part of the early years education is social development. When you get the school report at the end of the year there is a whole page on the social and emotional development of your child (the report itself is only 2 pages so you can see how important this is!).

 

7. Repeating a year is NOT a big deal

I don’t ever seem to remember anybody at my primary school repeating a year, nor being moved up for that matter. If a child was struggling then they received extra work, and if a child was doing really well, then they also received extra work.

In NL it works a little differently. If your child is finding the work a bit too challenging, or isn’t quite ready to sit still and concentrate for a period of time then it will be suggested that he or she blijft zitten- stays sitting. Not repeating the year, or being moved down a year group. Just stays where they are for another year. And because of the way the dutch intake works there is normally a variety of ages in one year group, meaning that the groups are based on ability rather than age. Every year since my boys have started school, they have had two or three classmates ‘stayed sitting’ and have had a few new ones that have joined. And it’s absolutely not a big deal. It’s actually a relief. Knowing that your child is at a level where they no longer have to struggle means the their confidence rockets. Definitely an advantage of the dutch system.Image result for happy kids

 

8. Kids cycle to and from school- alone!

Ok so it’s not expected that your 4 year old will cycle to and from school all by themselves, but from about Group 5 (year 4) it’s not unusual to see kids arriving to school on their bikes unaccompanied. They park them up in the designated bike racks, lock them and deposit the key in a special tub in the classroom.

All dutch kids receive bike lessons at school from about 6 years old and more importantly they learn the rules of the road.

Because of all the designated cycle paths, biking to school is incredibly safe. So safe in fact almost no one wears a helmet 😱. I can hear your gasps now but cycling to dutch people is just like walking to us. In fact, from about 9 years old dutch kids go to school trips on their bikes, cycling as a whole class, with fluorescent yellow vests but no head protection!

My daughter, who was born in NL,  learnt to walk at 1 and ride a bike without stabilisers at 2 so I can see where the confidence comes from, kids are cycling almost as long as they have been walking.

But nothing will prepare you for the sight after school when 300 plus kids burst out of the doors and race to be the first to unlock their bike and get the hell out of there. Let me tell you it is CARNAGE.Image result for bikes outside school

 

9. There is NO homework

Perhaps my most favourite thing about dutch education is the kids having no homework. When we first moved here I remember chatting with the Headteacher about my son starting and when I asked how much homework to expect she looked at me with a shocked expression and said  “Homework?! There’s no homework, when he gets home from school we expect him to go out and play!”

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There is not even any compulsory reading!! Of course I still read to my kids every night but the fact that we don’t HAVE to makes it feel a lot less like a chore.

My son is now in Group 5 (Year 4) and the most ‘homework’ we have had throughout his time at school, has been to prepare a book report. Though I have heard the rumours that we may be expecting proper homework this year but so far nothing!

This no homework policy gives kids unbelievable freedom when they get home from school. They can go straight out to play (no needing to get changed as they’re in school uniform remember) and just be a kid. No responsibility, no deadlines, no worrying that because mummy isn’t so good at maths they won’t be able to complete their work!!

They are children for such a short period of time and the Dutch seem to have realised that and are happy just to let kids be kids for that little bit longer, a sentiment I whole heartedly agree with.