Researching her book on the Dutch approach to sex education, author Bonnie J Rough is on a mission to find out more about Dutch institution Rutgers’ famous Spring Fever curriculum. She journeys to a school in a quiet, working-class neighbourhood in the Netherlands to observe a lesson given by teacher Hasan Hotamis and teaching assistant Malika Dardouh…
What was the purpose of the lesson?
The lesson that Rough observed took place during Spring Fever – “a special project week that takes place in hundreds of elementary schools around the Netherlands”. The lesson was given to a classroom of 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds and was intended to explore the difference between girls and boys
How did it go?
Hasan asks for volunteers – one boy and one girl – to stand on a small stool each and asks how we know the difference. Before eliciting answers, he makes a pair of basic drawings on the digital whiteboard: a head and limbs for each, two circles for torsos, with three dots apiece for nipples and navels. "I still don’t know who is the girl and who is the boy,” he comments, asking for help.
“What do boys have, then?”
“Piemel,” came a handful of voices.
“How does it look? Like this?” he asked, making a stroke in the air with the stylus.
“Downward?” he confirmed, then placed the pen at the base of one oval torso and drew a short line between the legs.
“Is that a boy?”
A handful of kids said “eww,” and a few more chimed in. Hasan gave a half second’s attention to their reaction, briefly covering his mouth and hunching his shoulders as if in a giggle, then got back to business.
“And what do girls have?”
“Vagina,” came the single voice of a brown-haired girl in a white dress with tiny pink polka dots. “Vagina,” the other children repeated after her. (As in the United States, “vagina,” not “vulva,” is commonly used in the Netherlands as a term for female genitals.)
“Vagina,” Hasan nodded calmly. “And how do I draw that?”
“So small!” yelled the girl who’d stood on the pedestal earlier. She jumped up from her seat and stood in a straddle, pointing emphatically between her legs.
“Here?'” he asked, pointing to the chest on the second figure.
“No!” the children shouted.
“Here? Between the legs?”
This time he drew a short upward line, a cleft at the base of the torso.
As Hasan “dresses” the children on the whiteboard, the lesson goes on to explore the children’s ideas about gender expression. Hasan quietly begins drawing nail polish on the boy.
“No!” the kids screamed. They were having fun with this game.
“But I want nail polish too! Can’t I?'”Hasan said, stamping his foot with a quick pout.
What made the lesson successful?
Near the end of the lesson, Hasan delivers a final message about bodies…
“Look,” he said. “Just as with your nose, just as with your ear, just as with your mouth: you have them, yes, but we don’t go around talking about them. Can we agree?“
“Also not about penises,” a girl volunteered.
“Also not about penises,” Hasan nodded. “And not about your ears, nor your tongue, nor your belly button,” he said, pointing to his own. He stood up. “Also not about your buttocks,” he said, resting his hands on his backside, “or back, or shoulder. If you need the words, you can use them, but not otherwise.”
Rough describes it as “a complex message handled simply and positively. The children are taught about the kinds of secrets to keep and the kinds to tell – what to say and what not to say. The messages are delivered clearly and without a secretive or embarrassing atmosphere. And all this is possible because of the skill of trained delivery professionals, the early age at which it is received and the universality of the education.”
Report by Sophie Manning