In the Netherlands, my tolerance for both mess and risk have increased.
Firstly, I have learned to embrace sand. Sand is at the bottom of every playground, and as a result, it is sprinkled through our shoes, piled in the bottom corners of our bags and forms an ever-present coating on our scalps. The bathtub has a permanent sand-ring and I no longer mind the feeling of sandy sheets. I have accepted that sweeping up a little sand is about the same amount of work as sweeping up a lot of sand.
Secondly, I know that if we go out when it is mildly warmish, that we will get wet because where there is sand in the Netherlands, there is also water.
Strategically, the Dutch use sand and water in playgrounds to teach the young lowlanders how to manage the country’s below-sea-level altitude. So every park features an elaborate water pump and flume system. Faced with a manual water pump, tiered channels and heaps of muddy sand, kids automatically apply their hive-mind to the problem and spend hours blocking and releasing dams, diverting water and pretending not to splash each other.
Thirdly, not only will every Dutch outing be wildly fun and messy, it will also be more perilous because playgrounds here are far less focused on safety than in the US or UK.
For example, just admire this free-for-all of bare-foot children running across wobbly bridges suspended over murky, stagnant water:
There is no lifeguard and there are no bacterial checks of the water. Because I went to law school in the US and am tainted by ideas like “attractive nuisance” and “negligence,” I almost couldn’t bear it the first time we stumbled into this place. By comparison, a typical wadding pool at a Seattle park in the US is six inches deep, drained every evening, heavily chlorinated and overseen by trained lifeguards.
Throwing caution to the wind, we’ve had a blast at this murky Dutch pool. (And we’ve only heard one family complain about itchy-red, post-swim rashes…)
Just as kids like mud, sand and water they also like sticks, sugar and fire, and so when the water playgrounds become unbearably cold, open fire pits appear everywhere. The sight of a nice warm fire is tempered somewhat by the accompanying band of five-year-olds swinging around burning marshmallows on sharp sticks, but somehow everyone seems to make it home without second degree burns.
So the Netherlands has taught me to step back and to let go a little more. We get dirty and wet, play in murky water that doesn’t smell quite right and poke at fires with sharp sticks. And it has been good for all of us.