Every morning at the Kaleidoscoop School ("kaleidoscope" in English) in the small town of Zeewolde, The Netherlands, children gather to light a candle and pray, or not, for themselves, those close to them, and the world. There is no compulsion or exclusion when it comes to prayer or belief in this interconfessional school, with roughly a quarter Protestant, a quarter Catholic, and half atheist, agnostic or non-denominational students. While the school teaches children ages 4 through 12 the basic subjects as its first priority, it is within an open and non-dogmatic environment. The mission of the school is to give the children the "baggage" -- a Dutch phrase -- or the knowledge they need in order to make a decision for themselves about religion ("Een interconfessionele school die kinderen bagage mee wil geven om een eigen gefundeerde keuze te maken").
After the prayers in the morning, there is a discussion about how they feel and compare their worldviews. For example, one child's grandmother may have just died. The child may feel sad and then wonder, is she in heaven? Another child may then chime in and say that his parents don't believe in heaven, or another may say could be reincarnated. The main aim of the school's teachings is to show that there are a variety of ways to think about these questions and that there is no single "right" answer.
Kaleidoscoop is fully funded by the Dutch government. Rather than having a strict separation of Church and State, the government supports all religious, atheist or secular schools, except for those who wish to have no state regulation at all (only roughly 5 percent of schools). In Contrasting Models of State and School (2011), Charles Glenn notes that The Netherlands has the most "pluralistic" school system in the world, where parents have the most freedom of choice to provide schooling that corresponds most closely with their convictions. This system developed out of a civil society centered approach to education rather than one more centralized and state-run.
Aart Wouters, a co-founder and principle of the school, grew up in the 1960s in The Netherlands under a society strictly divided along religious lines. There were the "four pillars" of society -- Protestant, Catholic, atheist or agnostic, and smaller groups such as Jews and Orthodox Christians. They each had their own schools and even their own television stations, a legacy which remains even today despite the "depillarization" and secularization of society.
Wouters grew up in a "closed" Protestant environment and considered their worldview normal. Then as a young man he traveled, from working at a hospital in Africa to picking oranges in Greece, and met Jews, Muslims and atheists. He realized that what he had been taught as a young man, that only his church in a small town in The Netherlands believed the "right" way, was, as he said in his characteristically frank Dutch way, "bull----."
He wished he had been able to learn more about other cultures and have a more accepting and open view to religion from childhood. Throughout his teaching career, though, he did not find a school that he felt was open enough to explore various religious disciplines, so two years ago he and a few others decided to found one.
In a world with many different religions that interact more and more, the school has "the goal to cultivate understanding and respect" for all religious views. From ages 8-12, the school has different educational themes, one of them being "world religions." Students learn about various religions around the world, including Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and will visit a mosque and Buddhist center as part of the theme. As yet there are no students of either faith and only one or two Orthodox or Jewish students, but all religions are welcome to the school.
Many adults worry that children are not mature enough or their minds are not developed enough to handle multiple explanations of God, the universe and creation. They fear children are not able to properly understand religions, and therefore learning about a variety of religions will just "confuse" them rather than lead to true understanding and tolerance. However, Wouters notes that it is the parents who have problems understanding and accepting multiple religious views. "We try to put our problems on them," he observed. In the first year one family pulled their children out of the school because Kaleidoscoop refused to teach that the trinity and Jesus were the only ways to God and heaven.
Wouters said he has never had a problem with children not being able to handle this multi-religious approach conceptually or socially. Discussing these ideas early and talking about them makes them more open, but also does not mean that they are not able to think for themselves and decide on what they believe. "They hear others, but kids who think in another way are not the enemy. You don't make it a closed conversation -- that it is only like this, or only like that."
Karin de Boer, mother of three at the school of ages 10, 8 and 4, is on the parent's board. She believes that "if you are going to teach kids about religion, then you might as well look at many different cultures and not just focus on Christianity. Because then, to me, it starts to feel too much like a tunnel where kids might perceive what they hear as the only options or reality. By taking it big, also talking about Buddhist rituals or visiting a mosque or a synagogue, you really broaden kids' horizons which is, to us, is the best way to achieve mutual respect in this world."
She says her children have never really had difficulties with understanding multiple religious views as appropriate for their ages. However, there is a limit. When talking about evolution for example, she would like it to be treated as a scientific fact rather than a religious belief and "from that point I like the split you have in the States between education and religion."
Most children also come from atheist or mixed religious households (abut 50 percent). The parents on the whole, including atheist parents, want their children to learn moral values. Bible stories are read and taught once or twice a week depending on age, and a few Protestant reverends advise the school on choosing excerpts. Karin and her husband both come from Catholic-informed backgrounds but are agnostic. If her children did choose to follow a religion "I trust that our kids will make their own choices in time and I will respect their choices."
Religious diversity is a natural part of life, and it is becoming even more important to be able to understand and interact with people who have different views. In most schools, rather than truly exploring different faiths and what they believe, we often shy away from the topic as too loaded and perhaps as a cause for problems rather than a way to alleviate or prevent them, but that may be more a reflection of our adult biases rather the children's. We must also accept that children may not choose to think what we think -- and perhaps that is what scares us the most.