“What are the Pieten Games?” I asked my wife while looking in confusion at the school letter my daughter had just handed me.
“It’s a morning where the children take part in different Sinterklaas games and activities,” she replied. “They probably want you to look after a small group of the children and guide them around.”
“Oh… this is not going to end well.”
The conversation was the result of one of my more recent attempts to integrate myself into Dutch society. I’d offered to help out at my daughter’s school. To be more specific I’d offered to help out with the preparations for Sinterklaas. I’d simply assumed it would involve hanging up festive decorations and not confusing the hell out of a group of four year olds with my bad Dutch.
“It’ll be fine. You’ll probably only have to take them from one place to another. There will be teachers there to explain everything,” my wife tried to reassure me.
The Pieten Games Briefing
When the morning of the Pieten Games arrived I accompanied my daughter to school. I sat at the back of the class with the other parents who had also volunteered. Once the teacher got the children settled she started to explain what we would be doing. I listened very carefully and tried to follow everything she was saying.
“Door de hele school zijn verschillende spelletjes, die we gaan spelen.”
The games were located in different parts of the school.
“Je gaat zo met een mama of papa naar het bord in de hal….”
We’d each be looking after a group of children.
“Op het bord hangen kaartjes voor verschillende activiteiten.”
Something about a notice board…
“Je pakt één van de kaartjes en leest de uitleg…”
…with cards and… written instructions?!
I looked out the class room window at the notice board she was pointing towards and felt a sudden flush of panic. There were about thirty cards pinned to the notice board, each with a paragraph of Dutch explaining a single activity.
She continued to explain that once we’d completed the activity on the card we were to return it and pick another one. My wife had been wrong. No one was going to explain to us what we had to do. I was going to have to read Dutch and understand it well enough to explain it to a group of four year olds.
The Notice Board
A short while later I was standing at the scary looking board of activities with the small group of children I had been given. The group included my daughter (who I was considering making team leader so I did not have sole responsibility for what happened) and three other girls from her class. It took me thirty seconds to lose the first child.
The children had started pointing at random cards in excitement while I tried to subtly direct them to the ones I could understand. We’d been the first group to arrive at the board but more children had quickly arrived and crowded around us. It was only once we’d picked an activity that I noticed my group of four had suddenly become a group of three. I felt that flash of panic again. The missing girl had become enveloped somewhere within the growing crowd of children. To make matters worse I’d not only failed to remember the names of the children in my group but I’d also failed to memorise their faces.
“Sophie. Who else was in our group?” I knelt down and asked my daughter in desperation, praying that she had been paying more attention than me. The confused look on her face told me that she had not and I would have to rethink my plans of making her team leader.
Standing up again I looked back at the swarm of children and quickly formed a plan. I picked the child who looked the most lost and called her over. When she didn’t object to following us around the rest of the morning I figured I had found the right one.
The first activity we picked from the board was playing Sinterklaas Quartet (Quartet with Sinterklaas themed cards). The trouble was I have never played quartet and despite it being a relatively simple children’s game I had no idea how to play it.
“So… Who knows how to play this game,” I asked the group as we sat around a table in one of the class rooms.
The three children who did not understand English stared at me in blank confusion. My daughter, who does understand English, also stared at me in confusion but shrugged her shoulders too.
Realising that I’d just spoken in English I tried again in Dutch but got much the same results. Luckily a nearby teacher seemed to notice the struggle and came over to explain the game. Once she was satisfied that we now understood the rules she left.
Five minutes later I realised something had gone horribly wrong. I must have misunderstood some simple rule of the teacher’s explanation because the children were caught in an endless loop of handing the same cards back and forth to each other without any end in sight. The game would last forever if I didn’t stop it.
“Ok. Let’s go do something else.” I quickly said in Dutch with a clap of my hands, trying to distract them from the fact that we had not actually finished the game and no one had won.
The next activity I subtly directed the children towards was Sinterklaas themed colouring in. It seemed like a safe bet because (1) I knew what the activity on the card said, (2) I know how colouring in works and would not need an explanation from the teacher and (3) what child does not enjoy colouring in? It turns out the children who notice something much more exciting happening nearby do not enjoy colouring in.
On the table next to ours happy looking children were busy making Sinterklaas and Piet hats out of card. My group of children were not looking so happy. As their motionless colouring pencils rested on the colourless images in front of them they looked longingly at the hat making table. When I asked them if they would rather make hats they looked down at their pictures in disappointment and declared them unfinished. They would then resume colouring in for five seconds before once again watching the smiling children making hats. Group morale was low.
“Ok. Let’s go do something else.”
Sadly the hat making activity was over crowded so we had to pick another activity. Luckily it was an activity in another class room without any fun distractions. We were going to play Sinterklaas memory. Thankfully I knew this game. You simply have to match two images from a grid of face down tiles. Each turn you look at two of them and see if they matched. The trick is to remember were the images are once the tiles are turned back over. Simple.
The children spent the next five minutes turning over the same non-matching tiles on each of their turns. Even when I tried to help progress was slow.
My daughter was the one to say what the rest of the group was thinking. “Papa, ik denk dat dit spel te moeilijk is voor ons.”
“Ok. Let’s go do something else!”
Next the children took part in the Pieten assault cause in the gymnasium. The various climbing benches, ladders and ramps had been arranged to represent roof tops the Pieten had to climb over. At the end there was a chimney the children had to throw gifts in to. They had a lot of fun doing it… which made it very difficult to move them on to the next activity when they’d reached the end. I’d get three of them together but when I went to retrieve the fourth they would all scatter to different corners of the gymnasium again. I also realised that I’d still not memorised their names and couldn’t simply call them all back. After three failed attempts at regrouping I needed something to lure them away.
“Ok. Let’s go do some hat making!”
Luckily there was an opening at the hat making table which was a relief because I had not gone through the official channels of taking a card from the notice board. I helped the children cut out the card for their hats sint/piet and stick them together. They decorated them with stickers and colouring pens. The children were really starting to enjoy themselves and were happy with their finished hats.
Next we moved directly on to face painting. It seemed like the logical step from hat making. Time was running out so it was also going to be the last activity of the morning. Once again I throw caution to the wind and did not consult the notice board. I probably wasn’t setting a good example for the children but they were getting their faces painted so they didn’t seem to mind. They were able to choose from the very traditional Sinterklaas options of; Soot Face Piet, Queen Elsa, Mega Mindy, Spiderman or Batman. I’m not sure that I’ve heard any Sinterklaas songs that include the defender of Gotham but I decided not to raise any objections. I guess Spider Man would be good at swinging from roof top to roof top to drop presents down the chimney at least.
While they were getting their faces painted I realised the morning had not been as bad as I’d worried. A few things had gone wrong but nothing major. My bad Dutch didn’t seem to have bothered them too much. They had ended up having fun during the Pieten Games and so had I.
I also realised it would have made things a lot easier if we’d gone to the face painting table first. I could have asked them to write each of the children’s names on their forehead.