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Still the cat’s whiskers: De Kattekop nursery at 40

If there’s one place at the University where it doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s De Kattekop. This, the University nursery, celebrates its 40th birthday in September. Its history reflects developments at the University. Parents are full of praise for it.

‘Who knows? Perhaps we’ll be providing compulsory IT training to zero- to four-year-olds in another 25 years’ time, sooner even.’ This is what director Tilly Pannebakker wrote in a special edition of the nursery’s Kattekrabbels newsletter celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2005. Fortunately, that hasn’t come true yet: in a conscious decision not to provide any TV, video or computer games, De Kattekop remains resolutely screen free. Pannebakker: ‘We don’t want to overload the children with stimuli. Instead we want to give them space to discover the world around them. Playing with other children is the number one priority.’

Director Tilly Pannebakker has been leading the nursery for over 30 years.

Only two nurseries in Leiden

Leiden University was the first Dutch university to open a nursery for the offspring of its students and staff. In those days childcare in the Netherlands was still in its infancy, says Pannebakker. She has been the director of De Kattekop for over 30 years and knows better than anyone what has changed and what has stayed the same. At the end of the 1970s there were only two nurseries in Leiden, and students and staff – from janitor to professor – had great difficulty securing a place for their children. Two members of the Executive Board at the time, Cath (chair) and Koppelaars (HR policy), therefore set up a workgroup to start a nursery. The later founders of the nursery expressed their gratitude by naming it after these two board members.

Hot meals

De Kattekop has been run from a purpose-built building with plenty of light and space since 1994. It caters for 90 children (a maximum of 56 per day) of students and staff from all corners of the University. And nowadays, from all corners of the world too. There are children not only from European countries such as Iceland and Italy, but also from countries in Asia and Africa. This international client base means new ideas. For decades, the children just ate a sandwich for lunch. But for parents from countries with less of a bread culture, a cold sandwich for lunch is very austere, says Pannebakker. So nowadays De Kattekop provides a hot lunch too.

De Kattekop began in a building on Langegracht in 1980 and moved to Kloosterpoort (see photo), next to the former Elizabeth Hospital, in 1983. But when it began to outgrow this building too, it moved to its present premises on Wassenaarseweg in 1994 (see banner photo).

Parental involvement

For some children, the Dutch no-nonsense culture can take a bit of getting used to – going outside to play even if it’s raining or a bit chilly, for example. But those are minor differences, says Pannebakker. Because if you ask her, what defines De Kattekop is its close community of children, parents and staff. ‘We really do do things together here. There’s a very involved parent association and the contact is very personal. De Kattekop is a small, independent nursery, so we aren’t part of a large chain with central guidelines and thousands of children under its wing.’ What is also striking is the staff continuity. Several members of staff have been working there for 20 years or more, and nursery nurse Hilma Westdijk has been there since its inception even, so 40 years.

Cecily Rose and Erik Koppe with their children Nora and Benjamin.

How do they do it?

Cecily Rose is an assistant professor at Leiden Law School, as was her husband, Erik Koppe, who now works as a lawyer. Their daughter Nora has just turned four, so has left De Kattekop, but their son Benjamin is two and still goes there. What do they think of the nursery? ‘A colleague was really enthusiastic about it and our first impression was excellent. A friendly welcome and a peaceful atmosphere in the groups at lunch. We wondered how they did it. The nursery nurses are kind, caring and very professional, and the organisation is excellently run. Both children have really enjoyed going to De Kattekop, and they’re happy when we come to pick them up again.’

Corona times

In customer satisfaction surveys, parents particularly rate the staff continuity and the small-scale nature of De Kattekop. De Kattekop has received a Nursery Award five times in succession and has been crowned the best nursery in Zuid-Holland. Vice-Rector Hester Bijl is popping in on Tuesday 1 September to raise the flag to celebrate the nursery’s anniversary. The anniversary week will be a low-key celebration because of the corona measures. How has the corona crisis been for the nursery? Pannebakker: ‘For the first few months, we could only provide emergency care for the children of key workers, which meant around 20 children spread across the week. All of the children have been able to attend since mid-May, and for them little has changed: they still get a hug.’ But parents now have to bring their children to the nursery at specific times and they aren’t allowed to come into the group room anymore. That took some getting used to at the start, but is now second nature. Parents are pleased to be able to work again, even if it is mainly at home.

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