Why Dutch Parents Drop Their Kids in the Woods

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For the Dutch 'dropping' ritual, kids might wander in the woods for several hours before they find their way back. Stefano Carella/Shutterstock

I'll admit I've always been a protective mom. I held my son's hand on the way to the bus stop, was picky about which playdates he could go to and, when he got older, made him text when he got to his destination safely.

Of course when I was growing up, we were out until all hours playing Kick the Can in the neighborhood, and I knocked on plenty of strangers' doors selling Girl Scout cookies. But that was then.

We tend to be helicopter parents in the United States, but in the Netherlands, parents take a different approach.

The New York Times recently wrote about a Dutch summer scouting tradition called "dropping" in which groups of kids, typically pre-teens, are dropped off at the woods at night and told to navigate their way back to camp. To make it more challenging, the kids are sometimes blindfolded on their ride there.

"You just drop your kids into the world," novelist Pia de Jong, who has raised her children in New Jersey, told The New York Times. "Of course, you make sure they don't die, but other than that, they have to find their own way."

To me, this sounds like something from Stephen King's imagination that's coming soon to Netflix.

As Ellen Barry writes in The Times, "If this sounds a little crazy to you, it is because you are not Dutch."

A beloved tradition

kid with compass
During a dropping, kids don't have GPS to guide the way. NadyaEugene/Shutterstock

It's not like the kids are shoved out of the car and left helpless. In addition to often being followed by an adult, they wear high-visibility vests and a team leader carries a cellphone in case of emergencies. They use maps or compasses to show them the way.

The adventure typically takes a few hours, and the goal is to build independence.

One commenter named Lara writes about her experience as an exchange student in the Netherlands in the late 1980s while visiting a friend's rural vacation house.

"His parents blindfolded us and then dropped us off in groups of 3 or 4, several miles from their house. Maybe we had some sort of map — definitely no GPS — and we walked through farm land, country roads and some wooded areas in random patterns until things eventually started to look a bit familiar, and somehow found our way home. Each group made it back within a few hours. It was a really fun adventure and a nice little group competition and team bonding experience. At the time I took this to be a creative party game my friend's parents contrived for us; how fun to know it was a beloved Dutch tradition!"

Maybe not so scary

Veluwe is an area in the Netherlands with many forests perfect for dropping.
Veluwe is an area in the Netherlands with many forests that are perfect for dropping. travelfoto/Shutterstock

When the Times story surfaced, droppings became a topic on Reddit. Commenters from other countries chimed in. Some noted that droppings are also a tradition in other countries, including Belgium.

Others pointed out that the droppings they experienced weren't nearly as ominous and scary as they sound.

"They forgot to tell that our 'woods' are mostly just large parks, it's very hard to walk for more than a mile or so without encountering human activity," pointed out Redditor vaarsuv1us. "Droppings are still fun, but it's nowhere near being dropped 'in the middle of nowhere' There is no middle of nowhere in the Netherlands. Usually it a little bit of hiking in a dark piece of forest to make it exciting, and the rest is just following small country roads/ paths."

In the article comments, several people pointed out that although droppings are well-known in the Netherlands, most Dutch children aren't members of scouting troops and few take part in droppings.

Most people who took the time to comment lauded the concept and offered their own critiques of helicopter parents. (In my defense, I outgrew my protectiveness relatively quickly. My kid is a very independent college student who hikes in the woods, takes mass transit and occasionally checks in with his loving mother.)

As Rod Sheridan from Toronto wrote, "Developing life skills is important, yes you worry about your children however they need these skills for adulthood."