Studying the Netherlands with Little Children

Our preschool history and geography this month has focused on the Netherlands. We have several good atlases for children, which we have used to find the Netherlands and its position relative to our home. For longer read aloud books we’ve been working through Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates (which we are enjoying and learning a lot from) and The Wheel on the School (we have only read the first chapter of that one so far). We’re also reading lots of picture books about the country. Here are our favorites:

The Cow Who Fell in the Canal is one of our all time favorite books.  The story follows Hendricka, an unhappy cow who eats too much and longs to see the city and wear a hat with ribbons on it, as she runs away from her farm and travels down the canals through the Dutch countryside until she reaches the city and rampages through the cobblestone streets and the cheese market.  The kids love the crazy idea of a cow loose in the city and her silly antics, and I like how the colorful illustrations wind up teaching the children a lot about Dutch distinctives like wooden shoes, windmills, architecture, cheese making, and things like that.  It’s a really fun book and we highly recommend it.

Katje the Windmill Cat is based on a true story about the St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood in 1421 when a dike was breached and a town flooded but a baby bobbing in its cradle was saved by a housecat keeping the cradle balanced in the flood waters.  The new dike that was built in the place of the broken one is called the Kinderdijk after that baby.  Anyway, in the book Katje is a miller’s cat living with the family who operates the windmill.  When the town floods Katje helps keep baby Annika’s cradle from capsizing and she wins the love of the miller and his wife.  Although the subject matter could be scary, it’s presented as the cat being heroic rather than as the baby being frightened so I don’t think it would bother anyone.  The illustrations are colorful and are highlighted by borders of blue and white Delft tiles that give a pretty Dutch flavor to the pictures.

The Hole in the Dike is a story taken from Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates and retold as a stand-alone tale.  You’re probably familiar with the story of the little boy who found a leak in the dike and held his hand against the sea all night long until help arrived to patch the hole, thus saving his entire village from flooding.  As we’ve learned from our reading, the country of Holland is below sea level, so the dikes are very important.  The story is a good lesson about how children can be observant and do great and helpful things even though they are small.  Eric Carle illustrated this version of the story and the colorful painted collage style pictures are characteristic of his other work.  Because we already had this story in another book (reviewed below) I mostly got this one because we like Eric Carle’s pictures.  After we read the book for the first time we made our own windmill pictures, cutting out colored paper triangles and rectangles and gluing them on a background paper to form the body and sails of a windmill.  You can see the kids’ pictures below.  I think they did pretty well for a barely 2, 3 1/2, and barely 5 year old crew whose mama is not inclined to practice art with them very much!

The Boy Who Held Back the Sea is a very pretty retelling of the story of the little boy who plugged the hole in the dike.  The illustrations are quite different from the version above, and are more in the style of Dutch masters paintings with good use of light and shadow.  This version of the story adds much more detail than the Eric Carle version, and considers themes like the boy’s disobedience to his mother, his behavior at school, and how dikes were guarded and repaired.  Overall I would say I prefer this version to the Carle version, but the Carle version is simpler and worthwhile for its own illustrations  so there is really no reason to choose just one.

I wasn’t sure if The Greatest Skating Race: A World War II Story from the Netherlands would be appropriate for preschoolers since it deals with running from Nazis, but I think the book is well done and instructive without being too much frightening detail for small kids.  The main character of the book, a boy named Piet, is the son of an ice skate maker who looks up to Pim Mulier, the great skating racer who pioneered the Elfstedentocht race between eleven Dutch towns.  Because Piet is a fast skater, his father asks him to help two other children escape Holland to live with their aunt in Belgium.  The children’s father has been seized by the Nazis and it is not safe for them to live in Holland anymore.  Piet and the other children must race down the canals and navigate around bridges and avoid German soldiers to get to safety before dark.  The trip is presented as an adventure and the children are brave.  After we read the book we also watched some YouTube videos of Elfstedentocht races so the kids could see people skating, see what the canals look like, and watch the skaters “klunen” (walk around the bridges), which was described in the book.  The kids really liked the whole idea and now want to go ice skating.  I should have looked into ice skating options in our area, but haven’t gotten to that yet.

Boxes for Katje is based on a true story of how the author’s mother sent a care package through the Red Cross to a family in Holland after World War II.  The book focuses on the little girl who received the package, Katje, and what it meant to her impoverished town to receive gifts in a time of need.  In the book (and in real life) the Dutch girl and American girl struck up a friendship and the American girl’s entire town came together to send box after box to their Dutch friends to help them get through the post-war shortages.  In return, the Dutch town sent a huge box of tulip bulbs to the American town.  This is a really neat story of friendship and helping others and being thankful for blessings.  The illustrations are bold and colorful and really add emotion and detail to the story.  I also liked how the book includes pictures of handwritten letters between the girls, because it reinforces what letters are supposed to look like in this day and age when snail mail is rare.  I can’t even believe I’m saying that, or that my kids are seeing handwritten letters as relics!

To complement our study of the Netherlands we are studying Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn this month.  Our art study is very basic – we have a big book of Rembrandt’s work from the library that we look at and talk about to get a feel for the type of work the artist did, and my main goal is for the children to remember his name, be able to recognize a few of his paintings and his style, and to know he worked in Holland.  We also found a great living book about the artist called Rembrandt and the Boy Who Drew Dogs.  The story is about Rembrandt’s son and how he worked hard to learn to draw like his father.  It’s based in truth since the younger van Rijn did apprentice in his father’s workshop, and I liked that the book conveys the importance of working diligently to learn a new skill.  The book has colorful illustrations and mixes in prints of Rembrandt’s actual sketches, etchings, and paintings.  I like that additional tie-in to connecting the art and style with the artist.  The kids like the story, especially the fact that the little boy has three dogs AND a monkey for his pets.

Hana in the Time of the Tulips also includes Rembrandt as a character and features one of his paintings, but this gorgeously illustrated book is primarily about the tulip mania in Holland in the 1600s.  The illustrations include lovely paintings and detailed pen and ink sketches that look similar to Dutch style use of light and color.  The history in the story is presented a little vaguely but is probably accurately how a small child would have perceived it at the time.  We give this book extra points because the main character’s name is Hana, which is very close to our own Hannah’s name.

Overall I think our study has been a success.  The kids have a general idea of where the Netherlands is located, that it is also called Holland, that the language there is Dutch, and they learned some of the distinctives of the culture and history of the country.  If the children were older I would probably include more history and in-depth study, but for preschool level I’m pleased with how much we’ve learned.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

18 thoughts on “Studying the Netherlands with Little Children

  1. These selections look great–all of them! I’m thinking about doing some geography studies (continents? countries? not sure yet. . .) with my girls this summer, and this post looks like a good starting place. I’d love it if you’d link up to Read Aloud Thursday this week. I think many of my readers would really appreciate this post!

  2. My kids LOVED The Wheel on the School, though I thought it dragged on and on. It’s been a few years. Maybe I should get it out and try again.

  3. Wow, such a great resource. I’m hoping to get organized enough to explore geography in this way with my kids someday. By the way, the windmill pictures are really neat!

  4. THANK YOU! My 10 year old is going to Holland in 3 weeks on short notice – I’ve just requested all of these at the library to get a jump-start on preparation. Thank you for sharing your work so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel!

  5. Thank you for listing these books! My kids are traveling to the Netherlands soon and I wanted to give them context…. Cheers! – Stacey

  6. Thanks so much for this resource! We are trying to mindfully prepare our almost 4 year old for an upcoming trip. She has travelled internationally several times, but she is at an age where she is retaining so much more specifically about cultures, languages, etc and making connections between the places we visit and home. If you have any book lists for Germany and United Arab Emirates, I’d love to add them to our library cue!

    1. Enjoy your trip! I can probably think of a list for Germany, but I’m stumped for the Emirates. I’ve traveled there, but it was before children so I wasn’t looking at it from a picture book angle. If you come across any great resources about the UAE for children, I’d love to hear!

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