Coming Full Circle…


Visiting the Bernard van Leer Foundation (­­­­BvLF) in The Hague, Netherlands


Bernard van Leer Foundation Mission:
To improve opportunities for children from birth to age 8 growing up in circumstances of social and economic disadvantage.

“At the Bernard van Leer Foundation, we believe that giving all children a good start in life is the right thing to do and the best way to build healthy, prosperous and creative societies.”  

My time spent at the van Leer Foundation was extraordinary because of the warm welcome a by Mr.  Leonardo Yanez ( one of the senior staff at BvLF) and all of the friendly staff he introduced me too. It is an amazing team of energized, creative and committed individuals from all over the world.




I specifically wanted to visit the van Leer Foundation because of the way in which it had supported early childhood initiatives in Jamaica when I was in the Peace Corps from 1977-79. At that time I wondered about why the Dutch would be involved in an initiative in the Caribbean?  At that time my wondering simply remained wondering.

Years later my curiosity was re-ignited and I began to research the Bernard van Leer foundation. Thanks to a reply email and invitation from Patrin my request to visit was granted.  What began as my first international early childhood experience 1977-79 came full circle in 2018 through this wonderful sabbatical opportunity.

I quickly learned the BvLF is not comprised of only Dutch staff but has an international team from Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, India, Israel, The Netherlands, Peru, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, UK, USA, Venezuela.  And the work of the BvLF has impact all over the world. I encourage you to take a look at their publication called Early Childhood Matters 2018 These stories make clear the need to attend to the needs of young children and their caregivers and innovative ways to do so.

Mr. Leonardo Yanez hosted my visit to the van Leer Foundation.  He kindly offered to meet me at the train station when I arrived in the Hague and together we walked to the BvLF office which was nearby.


As we walked and talked, I learned  about the BvLF perspective that to help  young children you must support their caregivers by understanding their stresses and needs.  As he spoke of the need to focus on the caregivers, it made me think about the important experience I have had in implementing Early Childhood Education in Minnesota where for over 40 years we have acknowledge that parents are the child’s first and most important teacher and the services are directed to educating and supporting parents.  This is also prominent concept in the work of the Harvard Center for the Developing Child . I mentioned to Leonardo that the perspective he was describing seemed much like that of the Innovation at the Harvard Center for the Developing Child.  Indeed there was a very specific connection! That very afternoon at 4 PM Dr. Charles Nelson from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child was meeting with the executive board of the Bernard van Leer Foundation and the next day meeting with the staff. Indeed they were not only on the ‘same page’ but actively work together!

I learned that over the years the BvLF  has evolved in it’s focus. They have  focused on to helping others recognize and implement changes in their community which ultimately improve child-caregiver interactions and care-giver well-being through sustainable projects. This powerful focus is revealed in their URBAN 95 PROJECT.  Y

Urban 95

Here is an example of the way they work to enhance the lives of children and their caregivers. On the day of my visit some of the team was having others in the office try out and give feedback for their Virtual Reality of a Three Year Old experience. We took turns donning the headset and experienced how a three year old would experience the world. The virtual environment was set in an area many children might encounter with some dangers and loud noises. The experience was very intense for me.  The question the project team asks is:


Here you see one of the team actively experiencing life as a 3 year old in an urban environment (complete with urban sounds)  with the team eager for feedback. They will present this experience conferences for urban planners.   It is hoped this virtual reality experience  can be used to help those who are involved community planning, quite literally put themselves in the shoes of a young child.



Staff experiencing  the virtual reality of a three year old in an urban environment.

While we, in early childhood education debate about the appropriate amount of ‘screen time’ for very young children, here is a use of advanced technology that can be used to help adults understand ( and remember!)  how a young child experiences the world.

A question I resonated with the in URBAN 95 booklet is:


A powerful way BvLF shares their work is making their projects available free on-line. The URBAN 95 starter kit has a plethora of ideas for stimulating ideas to enhance Public Spaces, address Mobility, integrate Early Childhood Services and use Data-Driven Management in city planning. The booklet describes 30 innovations that have been developed and used worldwide.

It was exciting to read The URBAN 95 starter kits opens up, literally, a world of ways to improve support for parents and children. Just a few  of the ideas and examples include:  safe and public  breastfeeding, pop-up play areas, planting a tree for every baby born, everything nearby, parent coaching bundled with health resources, integrated early childhood services, creating early childhood  data dashboards for city planners. For each idea they give real world examples and outcome areas. In additional, they have support for YOU to start these conversations through posters, power-point presentations, drafts of workshop agendas , case studies, etc.

uou can download a free copy of the starter kit to see all of the ideas and ways to start conversations in your community.   URBAN 95 starter kit address:


In addition to learning about the BvLF, I had an opportunity to hear informally from team members about their own experience as parents. This is a picture of a lively discussion over lunch.


I learned a bit about the teacher shortage in the Netherlands.  One mother shared that at her child’s school they are encouraging parents to consider becoming teachers. If a parent is takes this offer, there financial support for them to go back to school. This lead to our discussing the need to uplift teachers – both in status and pay. One person underscored the fact that without  good teachers at the foundation level, many children will not be inspired to study further. A really important point!

Another woman described the wonderful support available new parents right after the birth of their baby. A person came within just hours  to help coach the new parents through caring for their baby and helped with household tasks. I also learned that is common in the Netherlands to have a home birth. Hospital births are for those mothers who have some type of risk factor – yet the hospital stay is often just a day or less.

I will end this blog by giving you more information about the Bernard van Leer Foundation from their website…what began as Mr. van Leer’s desire to make a difference is indeed making a difference around the world.

From their website..

Who we are

At the Bernard van Leer Foundation, we believe that giving all children a good start in life is both the right thing to do and the best way to build healthy, prosperous and creative societies.

We are a private foundation focused on developing and sharing knowledge about what works in early childhood development. We provide financial support and expertise to partners in government, civil society and business to help test and scale effective services for young children and families.

Over the last 50 years, we have invested more than half a billion dollars and worked in all regions of the world. Our partnerships have informed public policies in more than 25 countries, led to innovations in service delivery and training that have been widely adopted by governments and non-profit organisations, and generated breakthrough ideas that have changed the way stakeholders from parents to policymakers think about the earliest years of a child’s life.


Bernard van Leer was an entrepreneur who built a large global packaging company. After witnessing the destruction of World War II, Bernard was inspired to invest in improving society and started the Foundation in 1949 with a wide range of philanthropic activities. After Bernard passed away in 1958, his son Oscar took over the packaging company and the Foundation.

Why invest in early childhood development?

Bernard’s son Oscar decided to focus the Foundation on young children in the mid-1960s. He was inspired by the idea that making small changes early in someone’s life could dramatically change their future. As a businessman, Oscar felt investing in young children was a compelling value proposition – one that could improve the state of the world.



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