Children. Alone in the forest. At night.
There is a tradition in the Netherlands of dropping children into a remote region at night and letting them find their way back to camp. These children are scouts, equipped with a GPS and reflective vests and accustomed to camping outdoors, but the experience is still meant to be challenging, as well as empowering.
An article in the New York Times tries to explain the philosophy behind these 'droppings.' Dutch parents are known for instilling a sense of independence in their kids and expecting them to solve their own problems:
"Droppings distill these principles into extreme form, banking on the idea that even for children who are tired, hungry and disoriented, there is a compensatory thrill to being in charge."
There was some debate on the Times article as to just how widespread the practice is throughout the Netherlands, with some Dutch people saying they'd never heard of it. The article claimed it's so common that many people were "surprised to be asked about it, assuming it is common to every country."
I reached out to a friend who lives in Rotterdam but worked as a scout leader in France for six years. Although she's never led scouts in the Netherlands, she said it wasn't surprising.
"We basically did the same thing in France. Kids are dropped off and left on a 'trek' for 2-3 days. They even have to find their own food, i.e. knock on random people's doors. Often they are in a forest and have to find somewhere to put their tent."
Scouting, she explained, is considered such an important tradition in western European culture that it is exempt from many of the health and safety concerns that beleaguer other child and youth groups. Plus, many parents have fond memories of their own droppings, which in turn leads them to encourage their children to have a similar experience.
Is there much to fear? Not really, when you consider how small the forests are in that part of the world. Especially in the Netherlands, it's almost impossible to get lost. You'll eventually reach a road or a town and be able to get help. There are few dangerous wild animals, no risk of getting shot for wandering onto someone's land, no big mountains or ravines.
It would be an entirely different experience here in Canada, where I live, or in many parts of the U.S. These forests are vast and unpopulated for miles, and it's entirely possible to get lost forever. Still, creating opportunities for children to get lost (and found again, of course), regardless of where you live, is important to teach them how to handle stress, navigate difficult terrain, and cooperate. It's one of the six elements of risky play, too.
This Dutch practice sounds like a wonderful coming-of-age ritual that we'd do well to adopt in our own culture, where kids are imprisoned at home by well-meaning parents for far longer than is healthy. This is a fine example for North American parents to follow: equip children with problem-solving skills and basic tools, teach them how to use them, then set them loose. You'd be surprised and impressed at what they can accomplish.