There's a new bilingual singing and dancing group for toddlers in town: Happy Pinguins. Deborah Nicholls-Lee took her preschooler along to investigate.
Bubbles, Songs, and Motor Development
It’s a Saturday morning and in a private room at the back of a charming kinderwinkel on Amsterdam’s Overtoom, you can hear the light strumming of a guitar. My three-year-old and I make a mental record of what we ‘need’ from the shop later, and follow the enchanting sound to the smart, glass-walled studio where around ten one-to-four-year olds and their grown-ups are assembling to take part in today’s Happy Pinguins class.
We are trying out a new 45-minute singing and dancing session where, on a Saturday, all the music is acoustic. This is courtesy of twenty-five-year-old Coleta, a music therapist, whose gentle, tinkling voice has both kids and parents in a trance.
The relaxed vibe of the shop, and the friendly lactation consultancy that it houses, is replicated in the room. Valeria, who founded the business in 2015, is so warm and amiable that you immediately feel welcome. There are hot and cold drinks on hand for customers (big or small) in need of refreshment, and a loo around the corner with changing facilities.
The room fills with bubbles as the toddlers arrive. The more confident ones try to blow bubbles themselves while others run and catch them. It’s a great ice-breaker and sets the tone for the fun session ahead.
People gradually join the widening singing circle and take part in the songs which, as this is a bilingual session, alternate between Dutch and English. On other days, the sessions are in just one of the languages, so you can pick which class suits you best.
Also handy is the stamping card system, which means that you can vary who takes your child and which day you come, depending on your schedule that week and how your unpredictable preschooler is feeling. Expect to see plenty of dads, especially on a Saturday. Valeria’s husband often helps out and brings their two small children along: “He’s my accountant, he’s the financial director in the company, and he’s massively supportive.”
The greeting song segues into other family favourites, accompanied by actions or dancing around the room. “It’s a multi-sensory class”, explains Valeria later. “All these songs - together with the moves, the colours and the materials used - are a strong stimulator for motor development.”
Valeria also stresses the unifying nature of the class for parent and child:
It’s not a class where you send your child and they do something alone, it’s a class where you bond together. What I also believe in is the power of singing. I love singing. But if you do it in a group, it makes me shiver, you know, it’s so powerful.
Play, Parachutes, and Pinguin-rolls
After around 25 minutes of singing and dancing, the toys come out: mats, ramps, foam shapes, tunnels, a rocking horse, and a giant ball. These are ‘tools’, explains Valeria, which stimulate the development of coordination, balance and motor skills. The children embrace the free play and begin balancing, jumping and crawling all over the equipment. This is an opportunity for the parents to grab a drink or, if they wish, to get down on their hands and knees and explore the materials with their child.
As we move into phase three of the class, the children all help to clear away the apparatus and then watch eagerly as a giant multi-coloured parachute is unfolded. They each grab a handle at the edge of the material and help bounce a rainbow of coloured balls into it, tossing them up and down in its silky waves. This is followed by more singing and dancing in a circle. The youngest ones sit on the parent’s lap and ride on their back; while the older children have moved to the next stage, bringing their favourite toy to dance with them, as they now become the parent, and their toy their charge. It’s great to have the mixture of activities. Lap groups can sometimes be challenging for restless toddlers, but the variation in the Happy Pinguins concept keeps the class pacey and the children entertained and focused.
When Valeria first experienced Happy Pinguins, on a family trip to her homeland of Hungary, she was amazed at how quickly her daughter took to the classes, singing the Hungarian songs back in the Netherlands and doing the accompanying actions and games:
And I thought, Wow, this is so powerful,…this is really the perfect concept.
So she bought the rights to export the concept to the Netherlands and set up her own business with classes in four different locations.
The last stage of our class is the much-anticipated Pinguin-Roll, where children are invited to roll in the suspended parachute as it is swayed to and fro. Valeria explains that this exercise helps connect the right and left parts of the brain. I am very focused on learning the words to the song and holding the cloth up high enough, but my daughter is unfazed and finds it exhilarating.
Normally, when a toddler group ends, people quickly disperse. This one is different. Valeria stays to chat with the parents, and several go for coffee or brunch in the adjoining kindercafé. It is this relationship with the families that Valeria finds most gratifying: “I like to talk to people. I exchange emails with every person who comes here. Seeing and hearing the happy parents and children, it’s very, very rewarding. When I get emails from mums like ‘My daughter had such a wonderful class, thank you so much’, that really makes your heart warm. They love to see their children happy.”
But isn’t it a great deal of work with four locations and two small children of her own? She shakes her head. “I love it.” “Do something that you feel passionate about,” she advises, “because then it gives you energy. If it’s a lot of work, it doesn’t matter because it gives you back the energy that you put in.”
Happy kids, happy parents, happy owner. No wonder the penguins are smiling.
Disclaimer: Happy Pinguins has paid to be featured on Amsterdam Mamas because they believe that their services would be of interest and benefit to our readers, and we think so too. For more information on sponsored posts and advertising on Amsterdam Mamas, please see our Advertising and Disclosure policy.
Deborah Nicholls-Lee is a British national who moved to the Netherlands in 2009. A former French and English teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor while raising her two children. See her website to find out more about her work.
All images used by permission.