1. Shorter school day (but fewer vacation days)–Here in Denmark, my kids will be going to school for six fewer hours per week. Hours are 7:45-2pm Mon-Thurs and 7:45-12:45 on Friday. With little to no homework, this will add up to a significant reduction in hours dedicated to schoolwork each week. Had we made it to Denmark a few years sooner, school hours would have been even shorter. Just two years ago (in 2014), Denmark underwent the most comprehensive school reform in modern history, adding nine school hours per week for elementary students (an increase from 21 to 30 hours per week). Although weekly school hours in Denmark remain lower than the average in the United States, the kids in DK do attend school more days each year. In the U.S., kids are at school 175-180 days per year, while in Denmark the law is 200 days per year. My kids here in DK will get a few days off in the fall, a week for Christmas, a week off in February and another week off for Easter, but then the school year will last until near the end of June. Summer break is only about 6 weeks in DK rather than the 8+ weeks kids typically have in the States. In Denmark there are no “Staff Days” or “Teacher Comp” days. There are a few scattered 1-2 day vacation days, but these are the result of specific holidays.
2. Less Paperwork–When I signed up my children for school in Denmark I was shocked (and let me emphasize, I was pretty much lightheaded with glee) because there was only ONE sheet for me to fill out. ONE sheet, and I didn’t even have all the information they were asking for, so I actually only filled out about half of it, which the school was fine with. This is for two kids, registering for the first time for school in another country. Registering for school in the United States–it’s intense. You need about every phone number and address in your proverbial phone book. You fill out a literal sheaf of papers– 20+ and that’s just to get you started, as more paperwork will trickle in constantly over the course of the school year. If your kid has a medical condition or allergy you will be filling out lots more. Doctor’s forms, proof of vaccinations. In Denmark? None of that. Obviously I was pleased at the bare-bones paperwork. On the single sheet there was one line for allergies, and I did write in that J has a peanut allergy. I will admit that the American in me started to get a bit suspicious about how easy the process was. Will they take J’s allergy seriously? How will they contact me if there’s an emergency? What if I’m not available?
3. Less Testing-They took my word for what level my kids should be at. No formal testing until 7th grade. I’m pretty happy about this, since in the States my 2nd grader was already developing test anxiety from the near-constant testing. For example, they tested “reading levels” about every six weeks. The results would be handed back to the students, and if J didn’t show significant improvement over that period, he would come home worried and upset, when of course over that short period of time and that kind of testing, the results don’t mean all that much anyway. That being said, I’m curious about how the process will work with my kids graduating from the Language Program to regular Danish folkeskole (public school). As far as I know there is no test that they need to pass, so how will the teachers know when to graduate them? As I imagine it, one cold morning the day will dawn and the instructor, or should I say master sensei, will present my children to me, a hand on each of their shoulders, saying simply, “They are ready.”
4. Less Homework-Perhaps the homework will come eventually, but I haven’t seen any yet ;). In the U.S., parents were encouraged to attend a special “Parent Information Night”. The purpose of this event was in large part to explain to the parents themselves the complex assortment of homework that would be due each week. (At the risk of sounding boastful, I will say that I performed very well at a respected university, and yet my 2nd grade son’s homework schedule had me confused). There was math homework, reading logs wherein reading minutes must be counted and signed for, Accelerated Reader tests, book reviews, spelling homework, weekly spelling tests. And that’s just the regular weekly stuff. There was so much that the schools saw the need to create “Agenda Books” (remember, this is for 2nd graders), to help them keep track of everything. Then of course, we parents were supposed to read and sign their agenda each day, and keep track of that along with Home Folders, School Folders, etc. What a hassle for such little kids.
5. More Outdoor Time-My kids came home the first day of school in Denmark very excited because they’d had three recesses in one day. They also remarked that these breaks were longer than any they’d had in the States.
6. More Fieldtrips-When I picked A up after her second day of school, she announced that they had gone to a park. I was like, “Oh, really?” because I had not filled out a permission slip. I found it a little odd, but I trust the school here. Several days later, A returned home to announce that her class had taken a field trip to the fjord. This time I was slightly weirded out as it seemed like a pretty big excursion, and I hadn’t received any notice that it was going to take place; My daughter had dressed in a sleeveless shirt because it was a rare warm, sunny day, but I did not apply sunscreen because I figured she would not be outside for any extended period of time. She came home with a bit of a sunburn because evidently they had enjoyed a lengthy visit to the fjord and surrounding beach. I am very glad the class went, just wish I had been given a heads up ;). Needless to say this is a bit different from the United States where the kids do not leave school grounds without parents’ written consent as well as a barrage of paper reminders over the course of weeks.
7. More fun/less worry–The playgrounds here in Denmark are not simply an expanse of concrete or gravel with a couple of swings and a meager plastic slide. No, they are a terrain designed to stimulate and delight. When the school buildings are constructed, a natural woodland is often left surrounding the playground area. The children are allowed to play in the woods and climb trees during recess. My kids’ previous school in the States had like one stubby tree out front, and it was explicitly against the rules to climb it 😦 . Also, when the foundations for the school buildings in DK are excavated, it is common to retain the dirt on school grounds in order to create a hill for slides and sledding. In the U.S. you’re always looking for a good sledding hill, and if you find one, you sled with the constant trepidation that some authority is about to show up and tell you to leave. These “authorities” are, of course, afraid that you will get hurt and it will be their responsibility somehow. This is in contrast to Denmark where the kids are allowed to have more fun, outdoors particularly, because the school is evidently less worried about kids getting hurt (or a resulting lawsuit). As I had it explained to me: climbing trees or playing on the hills, the kids might get a scrape here and there, but this process is allowing them to learn about and get a sense of their own bodies–the way it moves and the space it occupies.
8. No School Lunch Program–At my kids’ school in Denmark, all students bring their own lunches from home. They use a “lunch pack” rather than what we in the U.S. would consider a traditional lunch box. My kids showed up with their regular American lunch boxes and suddenly these lunch boxes looked like large fabric-covered monstrosities compared to the Danish kids’ “lunch packs” which resemble the kind of small plastic pencil or art cases that kids in the U.S. use for markers, crayons, etc. These lunch packs are divided up in a way similar to bento boxes. The school is strict about a “no junk food” policy. Students are not allowed to bring candy, chips, or juice. There is some kind of “fruit and/or milk program” which parents can sign up and pay for so that the kids can have fresh fruit and milk delivered to them each day. I haven’t figured out how to enroll the kids in this program, but it sounds swell. The Danes do seem very concerned with young children getting plenty of milk to drink. We don’t know if this concern, coupled with the restriction against juice is more a cultural love of milk for children, or if it’s the result of an insidious milk lobby of some sort (joking… 🙂 ) I think we all know what the school lunch program is like in the States. It is convenient for parents and it ensures that all kids (including those who may be underprivileged) are provided with food, but the positive thoughts pretty much end there ;).
9. Focus on Practical Skills–There appears to be an emphasis on acquisition of practical life-skills here in Denmark. The schools have classrooms full of “mini kitchens” and the kids are taught to cook starting in 3rd grade. They are also taught to do laundry and to garden. J came home a couple of days ago excited to show me some sticks he had whittled in “woodworking class”. I was a bit taken aback because Denmark is a country where it is illegal to own a regular locking pocket knife. J knew about this, so he was excited to tell his dad that he “played with a knife at school.” At many schools in DK, the kids plant vegetables, harvest them, and regularly bake their own bread for snacks. In the States, it would be a typical part of a curriculum to maybe go outside and look at a tree, or plant an indoor bean plant or seed, whereas in Denmark it is an integrated part of the curriculum throughout the entire school year.
10. Biking Culture— Biking in Denmark is very popular among children and adults. The majority of students bike to school starting at a young age, and it is interesting to see the hundreds of kids’ bikes parked outside the elementary school each day. Part of the school curriculum is bike safety and the kids are taken outside to learn the rules for safely riding bikes in the city. One thing that they learn is hand signalling, and I can attest that I have actually seen the children doing this as they ride their bikes about town–very impressive! Knowing that all the children have received this training makes me less nervous about driving around with all these kids out and about on their bikes : ).