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Why Is My Kid Being Forced to Bike and Swim?

Photograph by Twenty20

While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children learn to swim from the age of four and students in D.C. public schools will now learn to ride a bike in second grade, in the Netherlands the landscape and transportation culture has dictated for generations that children learn these things. And early!

Here are some activities other kids learn for fun that Dutch kids learn as safety precautions.

RELATED: Where Kids Don't Wear Bike Helmets

1. Riding bikes

A bicycle is far more than a toy in the Netherlands. It is a primary means of transportation for children and adults. There is a sophisticated system of bike lanes, and bikes are considered part of traffic rather than a nuisance to cars. Children become accustomed to traveling by bike from a young age—some even from infancy, with special racks that hold a car seat on the back of an adult bike. (You also see babies in Baby Björn-type carriers on bikes, which always makes me cringe.)

Children learn to bike independently using what is called a loopfiets, a walking bike, which is basically a low, two-wheel bike without pedals. Because they learn to manage speed, balance and steering on these bikes, most children move on to actual pedal bikes without the use of training wheels (my oldest two were biking properly by the age of 3, without training wheels). Children are taught how to bike safely among other traffic, how to signal if they are turning and how to understand signs and traffic signals.

By the time most children are in what is the equivalent of middle school, they bike without their parents to school—some kids I know go up to 10 kilometers each way. And, of course, nobody wears a helmet.

[S]ome kids I know go up to 10 kilometers each way. And, of course, nobody wears a helmet.

2. Swimming

Knowing how to swim in the Netherlands is a necessity, because there are so many canals and children can access water very easily. Children are required to earn their swimming diplomas, a three-stage process (diploma A, B and C) that usually begins at 4 and half to 5 years of age. Without it, children must swim with flotation arm bands in public pools.

The diplomas used to be earned through the school (therefore, the breaststroke in Dutch is called the schoolslag, or schoolstroke). It's now primarily the responsibility of parents to arrange the lessons privately. My son, who has actually been "swimming" with us every weekend since he was about 3 months old, started his swimming lessons a few weeks ago.

They learn to handle real-world situations, such as orienting themselves under water, swimming with clothes and shoes on, and pulling themselves out of the water or onto rafts. To earn his A diploma, he will have to swim the breast- and backstroke (50 meters) and be able to swim through a hole in a panel three meters underwater. The challenges increase with each level. A swim diploma is equivalent in life milestones to an American teen getting a drivers' license: there's a big ceremony attended by parents and grandparents (during which fathers jump into the water fully dressed).

Knowing how to gauge whether ice is safe and knowing how to stay on your feet when traveling on ice is imperative.

3. Ice-skating

While not actually required, many Dutch children learn to ice skate (and many go on to win gold medals in speed skating). The canals that present drowning dangers often freeze in the wintertime—and not just canals: the river Spaarne that snakes through our city froze three years ago, creating an icy thoroughfare on which people biked and skated, pushed their baby buggies and even sat at tables put out by riverbank cafes, enjoying hot drinks. Knowing how to gauge whether ice is safe and knowing how to stay on your feet when traveling on ice is imperative.

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When the water freezes, the country pretty much shuts down, so everyone can get out on the ice. You can follow tours around windmills that line canals, and there's the famous Elfstedentocht (Eleven cities tour), a nearly 200-kilometer skating route in the north of the country. When the ice is suitable, a race is held with up to 300 participants each year. Unfortunately, due to climate change, the canals of the Elfstedentocht have not been adequately frozen to support this race since 1997.

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