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Old School, Now Trendy (Dutch Education)

Date: Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Category: Blog

Old School, Now Trendy
(as printed in ‘XPat Journal,’ Spring 2015)

My 2 kids both wImreKleermakerent to Waldorf School in Amsterdam. In Dutch it’s called ‘Vrije School,’ which translates to ‘Free School.’ I don’t know why they call it ‘Free’ because it’s based on the philosophy of a rigid 19th century German educator. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never looked at a Dutch school and thought ‘Not German enough.’

I soon realized ‘Vrije School’ is called ‘Waldorf’ because it’s a bit like the Waldorf salad: all natural ingredients, with a few nuts. We were once on a canoe trip with a Waldorf papa. While picking our paddles, he refused the ones made of aluminum and plastic, insisting on all-natural materials. He took the wooden paddle. Soon, we noticed he wasn’t paddling fast enough. He complained that the paddle was too heavy. Soon we noticed he was complaining again, this time about splinters. That was my first impression of the Waldorf School: shunning modernity for the sake of complaining – and a lot of veering to the left for no reason.

What I did find appealing about the Dutch Waldorf School was the idea that children are more than academic results. I’d just watched Ken Robinson’s TED talk ‘How Schools Kill Creativity,’ and indeed I was looking for something different. Coming from America, I know some parents who are so manic about their kids’ Grade Point Average they might as well save up for psychiatrist bills as well as college tuition. The way they hover over their kids, these Americans are now known as ‘Helicopter parents.’ It’s everywhere. The last time I visited the US, I got yelled at for letting my kid ride his bike on the sidewalk without a helmet. I thought ‘these people wouldn’t survive 5 minutes in Amsterdam traffic.’

My wife and I thought we’d give the Waldorf School a try. At the preschool level, there was a bit of Head Start education, but also they let the kids play. So far, so good. But soon I noticed something unusual: a strict adherence to arcane Christian holidays. Already, the Dutch calendar takes half the month of May to observe things like Ascension and Pentecost… which most Dutch people describe to me as ‘the Day Jesus took a long weekend.’ So why exactly were my kids now celebrating Saint Michael Day and Saint Martin Day?

The good news was the Waldorf School – while strictly adhering to Christian holidays – did it in the most pagan way possible. To hear my kids describe him, St. Michael was the patron saint of colored leaves and finding chestnuts. The St. Michael holiday involved trooping the kids into the forest to slay a dragon, portrayed by one of the fire-breathing parents. It felt a bit like taking our children to the Burning Man Festival. I don’t think any of the parents were using drugs, but if they were I’m sure it was organic.

Then came the darkness. In early November, Saint Martin is celebrated by again trooping the kids into the forest. Pretty soon the sun goes down, and then begins the celebration I call ‘Fumbling Through the Dark.’ Of course, there are lanterns. But only organic ones are allowed: hollowed-out pumpkins, squash, and the occasional parsnip. They’re very decorative – and completely ineffective as lights. Soon after November comes Advent, when the school is lit only by candles – which means it’s mostly just dark. To me, it felt less like Christmas and more like a Haunted House maze. The difference was the toddlers all around, who were impossible to see, because their faces were blacked up for Sinterklaas. To any kids I’ve knocked over, kicked, or stumbled into, I apologize

But of course, our kids were loving it. Soon came the Springtime, when the class went to the school gardens and learned where food comes from. This led to a surprisingly bountiful harvest with plenty lettuce, tomatoes, and the biggest courgette I’d ever seen. The school year ended by trooping the kids into the forest to celebrate St. Jan, apparently the patron saint of spitting cherry pits into a bonfire. There were crowns made of flowers, parents playing music, singing, picnicking. And then there was the ritual of holding your child’s hand and leaping over the fire together. I was sold.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a true Waldorf parent. I’ll never be ‘dyed in the wool.’ But I do appreciate the trend that’s now being called ‘Free-Range Children.’ I want my kids to be well-read, but also well-rounded. I want them to have a healthy economy, but also a healthy environment. And maybe the best way to do that is to go a bit Old School.