School starts when you turn 4 years old in the Netherlands | Is this mandatory?

Lots of people know it’s not mandatory to send your child to school when he or she turns 4. Still most of the parents do (choose to?) send their children to school. Why? And what would be a reason not to?

This blog is about our choice not to send Liv to school fulltime (in the first 2 years) and the reasons why.

But before you continue, I like to start with an important disclaimer:
This blog is about our choice and the reasons why we chose to do this. I’m not saying that this IS the right choice, but we do feel this it’s the right choice for us. I’m NOT saying that if you as a parent, choose something different that that choice is bad. I think that every parent should decide for him or herself what you think is best for your child, despite what other people (might) think. (Even better: stand behind your choice for 100%). I also know that this can be a challenge and that’s the reason I wrote this blog. For parents who want to do this, but are scared to because of social pressure or others reasons.

Ok, back to us. When Liv was born we intentional chose to spend as much time as possible with her. We felt (and feel) like these first years are so important and we wanted to be responsible for her upbringing and life lessons these first years. We also believe that a solid base at home will result into a good bond and that they will later discover the world on their own pace. “Cutting loose” bit by bit, but knowing there is always the safe base at home. We were lucky we had the luxury to do this (even together) and every single day I’m grateful that we could.

In the 4 years of Liv’s life, we have travelled a lot and because of this we saw how life is in different places and the differences in schooling systems. In Scandinavia for example, it’s very common to stay at home with your baby the first year (women and men have long(er) maternity leave) and in many countries children don’t start school till they are 5,6 or even 7 years old.

Every time I tell this story, there are people who respond with: “ok, but there are also countries where children start school earlier, like Belgium”. That’s correct, but as far as I know these countries are in a minority.

I always felt like 4 is a young age to start school and then once we had Liv, this feeling got even stronger. When we started our trip around the world for a year and I realized that 4 isn’t the common age everywhere to start school, I started to wonder why we do in the Netherlands. Is this necessary? Isn’t it most important that a 4 year old can just play? And learn along while playing on its own pace? Me and Denny feel like this would be the way, but then we started to receive questions like: “aren’t you afraid you child will miss something?” or “aren’t you afraid that she won’t join in?’ or “aren’t you afraid she’ll fall behind?”. I started to wonder what studies would say concerning this subject, so I googled “Best age to start school” and these are a few of the articles/studies I found:

We aren’t afraid that Liv will fall behind or that she’ll miss anything and it’s good to know there are studies that confirm this. I do think that “missing out” is a trap. It’s also called: FOMO, “the Fear of Missing Out” and it seems like this already starts in first grade. If I bring Liv to school and I see that the wall is covered in drawings, but there isn’t one of Liv, or when I see they talked about the rules and she missed it, it does cross my mind “oh, oh she missed something”. I then think for a second that I’m selling her short. But this is only a split second, because I know this feeling is reinforced because Liv is one of the only ones who goes to school part-time. Sometimes is hard to make a decision that doesn’t follow the crowd. But when I pick-up Liv after a morning in school and she is death tired or we go to the beach the next day because it’s so bloody hot, or we make a smoothie together or have a crafts morning, I know this is the right thing to do for us.

We’re also not worried that she won’t join in. The group she is in is a 1st and 2nd grade together and changes all the time. The whole year new kids join the group and then the end of the school year all the 2nd graders will leave the group and you have to get used to a whole new group again. It’s not till 3rd grade that “joining in” is more relevant. You then start with a group that will probably stay in this formation till the end of primary school.

Another comment that I hear often is: “my child is ready to start”. I respect everyone’s choice, maar I often wonder who’s ready: is it you as a parent? Or is it the child? Don’t get me wrong, I can totally understand that you are ready as a parent and that’s a good reason too, because your own wellbeing is very important. The only thing is that I think “my child is ready” is often being said as a reason to start school, although many 4 year olds are not ready at all. At least not for 4,5 days a week. Of course when they are older you need to challenge them more and it’s more work as a parent. Not every parent has the time nor the patience to do this. Then there are also parents who would love to have a choice, but due to personal reasons they don’t. I do recognize that it takes more effort to challenge Liv/ keep her busy. Just getting a toy out doesn’t do the trick anymore 😉 However, there are still many things we do at home that she really loves doing. Although she’s also ready to explore the world a little more, I don’t feel this is a sign that she is ready to start school 4,5 days a week with at least 20 other kids and only one teacher.

It might seem that I’m against school and I’m not. I do think it’s good for Liv to play with other kids, to learn to share, to learn things from other people etc. But I would rather see it would be the same intent as pre-school. So 2 teachers with 15 children instead of 1 teacher with 20 and more often even 30 kids. You have to wait a lot till it’s your turn (if it’s ever), there is no time to let all the children speak in the morning circle etc. To keep 30 kids in line it has to be disciplined. I totally understand, but I don’t find it necessary when you are so young.

An interesting podcast (in Dutch) about this subject is: “Opgejaagd”. If you don’t have time to listen to all the episodes, but you are curious how it’s done in a different country (in this case Sweden), then just listen to episode nr. 7: Het Walhalla. But even better if you listen to them all 🙂 I was shocked and sometimes sad when I was listening and the most heard comment of parents who have children in school and are not (100%) satisfied is: “It is was it is. We just have to deal with it”.

And that’s just not me and Denny…. 🙂

So as long as school is not mandatory, we will bring Liv part-time. And did you know you can also keep your 5 year old at home for 5 hours a week without permission and even for 10 hours with permission? Yes, for real! It’s on the website of the Rijksoverheid, here! So as long as it’s not mandatory, or till we notice that Liv really really wants to go, we take it slowly. That means that at this moment she goes to school for 3 mornings a week and later that might change to 3 days. When she is 5, she can go for 4 days and then fulltime when she turns 6 years old. There are so many things in live that you “have to do” and we want her to know that she should do what she want –ofcourse within boundries- and what she feels like and not because “it’s supposed to be like this and or/ because everyone is doing it”.

Questions we get asked often:

  1. Would homeschooling be an option for you?
    No homeschooling won’t be an option for us and isn’t very big in the Netherlands. We do find it important that Liv goes to school, only not so often at such a young age. We like her to learn other social skills and for her to play with and learn from other kids. If we would have had 6 kids, it might have been different 😉
  1. Would Waldorff (in Dutch: vrije school) be something for you?
    We do like the way it’s arranged in first and second grade at a Waldorff school, but with the Waldorff school here in Middelburg we didn’t find a match. We are happy with the school we’ve chosen now (in theory, we have to see in practice) where there is time for creative subjects and other activities for a child to excel.
  1. What if Liv likes to go to school every day?
    We will first stick to our plan with a maximum of 3 days a week and explain to her why we choose to do it this way. If it turns out that she’s physically ready (so not tired anymore) and she really really wants to go, then we have to deliberate again. So far, she is death tired from only 3 mornings and super happy if you come and pick her up (although she does like school when she is there), so for now it’s not an issue yet.