A summer afternoon in Esther van de Paal’s Amsterdam house. Sunshine spills through wide windows, illuminating the open-plan interior. Casper, 4, the youngest of her four children, is dive-bombing a pile of cushions while Ava, 7, perches at the table lavishing chocolate sprinkles on to bread. The plink-plonk of ‘Chopsticks' drifts from the piano. On shelves, art tomes squat next to a vintage sweet machine; wooden toys sit by trailing pot plants and 1950s' furniture. It feels child-friendly but grown up: a picture-postcard of modern family living.
Apart from one thing; there are no screens. ‘We had an iPad but it’s disappeared,’ says Esther, brown-legged and breezy in a billowing dress. ‘It’s a controversial subject and I don’t want to be black and white about it but we’re pretty much a screen-free household. My kids play with Lego, building blocks, toys that inspire empathy, creativity and real-life problem-solving in a way that I don’t feel that online games do. I’ve seen parents try to limit screen time and it only seems to lead to arguments. So I’d rather not have any screens at all.’
Ironically, it is Esther, a co-founder of parenting website Babyccino, who spends most of her time online. What began twelve years ago over coffees in London (where Esther and her husband Tamar, a fellow online entrepreneur, used to live) as a blog ‘to share things young mums talk about: nice recipes, cultural differences, fashion finds’ has become a viable business with contributors based across the world, an e-commerce portal of niche brands and regular, pop-up shopping events.
Running an online business means that real and virtual life are blurred. ‘I don’t have a problem with sharing bits of my life online’ but she draws the line at the trend for stretch mark selfies. ‘I’m not sure how interesting they are!' Esther’s immaculate lunch boxes even have their own Instagram account. But it’s not all likes. When a fellow blogger posted one of her lunchboxes, featuring a banana embellished with the words ‘happy birthday’ an onslaught of sniping ensued. ‘One person complained: “How does she find the time to do that? She’s one of those women who does nothing all day.” What they didn’t get was that I don’t make the lunches with social media in mind but to give my children a healthy lunch,’ she insists. ‘If I share a photo on Instagram it’s to inspire people – but it’s not why I make them in the first place.’
So, how does she feel about Sara, who is 12, using Instagram? ‘She shows me her posts and she knows that I don’t approve of those shallow teenage photos, which are all about looks. But she’s clever, she has good taste and she’s aware of the messages the images send out.’
School is a cycle ride away from home. ‘Tamar takes the children in the morning: three in the front and one standing on the back; we’re not so hung up on safety here,’ laughs Esther. All the children spent a year at the British School in Amsterdam ‘to introduce them to the language’ before going locally. ‘The Dutch educational system is very different to the UK. There are no private schools and, unlike London, parents don’t obsess over education; we just send our children to the nearest school when they’re four. Wednesday is a half day and there’s no homework, apart from the odd test, until senior school. We’re pretty relaxed parents so the system suits us.’ The cycling culture is key to children’s development too; ‘Sarah started cycling to her horse-riding lesson with a friend when she was 11 and half. I think that freedom helps them feel independent from an early age,’ she says as Casper appears brandishing a pot of Nutella – ‘Not now … oh all right …’
Esther’s house, in a leafy backwater of south Amsterdam, echoes her laid-back approach. ‘We were renting next door so when this house came up for sale we jumped at the chance to buy it. We were lucky, prices have doubled since we bought it two years ago as more foreigners move to the city.’ Esther trained as an architect so she set to work to design the airy, top-floor extension with its views of the garden. Throughout, ‘decades’ of wallpaper and decorative mouldings were ripped out and partition walls removed. In the living area, poured concrete floors flow like a glossy river towards the garden, with its vegetable plot, at the back.
But funds were not unlimited. Cash ran out for wooden floors upstairs so the underflooring is painted a pale blue. The original 1950s' bath was preserved and offset by a salvaged school basin. A ramshackle extension houses the temporary but charming kitchen, where Esther installed a child-height worktop complete with mini pots and pans. Furnishings are a mix: open-plan 1950s' shelving, with a desk and storage for toys, was an eBay steal; the Star Wars sign and the orange Eames chairs were rescued from a New York sidewalk: ‘I love finding things on the street.’ There are accomplished sculptures by her late mother, Willemien Plantinga, and intricate paper artworks by her friend Julie Marabelle (of Famille Summerbelle). Everything has a personal resonance.
The former kitchen is now Esther’s office. ‘I like to be at my desk by 8.45 so I can pick up the kids in the afternoon.’ Thursday is ‘sacred’ date night and the lack of homework means the family can shop together at the local market after school. ‘At night I’ll read to the children. Tonight we’ll be watching Harry Potter with the older ones,’ says Esther. ‘I think that as a society we worry too much about how to spend quality time with our children. Instead of thinking about it, just do it.’
Esther is co-author of 9 Months: a Pregnancy Journal @estherbabyccino babyccinokids.com Your daily destination for parenting inspiration.