Shortly after 10 pm on a recent night, a car came to a stop at the edge of the woods. A door opened to release three children: towheaded boys of 12 and 15, and a 12-year-old girl with dark pigtails and an emoji-covered backpack. Then the driver threw the car into gear and sped away, gravel crunching under its tires.
They were tiny figures at the foot of the forest, miles from the summer camp they were attending, with only a primitive GPS to indicate the right direction. Darkness was falling. And they were alone.
They peered into the night: Was this the path?
“Could be,” said Thomas, the 12-year-old team leader.
And then, because there was nothing else to do, they plunged into the woods.
This is the Dutch scouting tradition known as a “dropping,” in which groups of children, generally pre-teenagers, are deposited in a forest and expected to find their way back to base. It is meant to be challenging, and they often stagger in at 2 or 3 in the morning.
Daniël Bos, a scout, at the group’s camp before participating in a Dutch tradition known as “dropping,” where groups of children are deposited in a forest and have to find their way back to base, near Utrecht, Netherlands, Jul 9, 2019. The New York Times
In some variations of the challenge, loosely based on military exercises, adults trail the teams of children, but refuse to guide them, although they may leave cryptic notes as clues. To make it more difficult, adult organisers may even blindfold the children on their way to the dropping, or drive in loop-de-loops to scramble their sense of direction.
Sometimes, they hide in the underbrush and make noises like a wild boar.
If this sounds a little crazy to you, it is because you are not Dutch.
The Dutch — it is fair to say — do childhood differently. Children are taught not to depend too much on adults; adults are taught to allow children 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.
Certainly, many adults in the Netherlands look back on their droppings fondly. Rik Oudega, a 22-year-old scout leader, recalled being pulled over by police as he drove the wrong way on a one-way road on his way to a dropping. His heart sank, he said, “because what I did was against the law.”
The officers pulled up beside him and asked him to roll down his window. They peered into the back seat of his car, where there were four children in blindfolds, which, Oudega said, “is not really allowed either.”
Oudega tried to look wholesome. “I’m here on a dropping,” he told them, hoping for the best.
“They looked at each other, then they smiled at me and said: ‘Have a good evening. And try to follow the rules.’”
The children on the dropping in Austerlitz, not far from Utrecht, walked into the woods, and the smell of pine needles rose from the sandy earth. The forest floor was patched with ink-black moss. A half-moon had appeared in the sky.
For a few minutes, there was the sound of cars on a road, but then that, too, quieted. The woods closed in, becoming dense.
That night was the first dropping for Stijn Jongewaard, an 11-year-old boy with jutting ears, who claimed to have learned English from Minecraft video games and “Hawaii Five-O.” At home, he spends much of his leisure time planted in front of his PlayStation. This is one reason his parents have sent him to camp. He has never been lost in the woods before.