Letting Kids be Kids: Suggestions from a Danish Elementary School

I know I’ve mentioned some of these points before, but I have more information (and more pictures) now :).  ***Photos courtesy of Højmark Børneverden.

I will also note that the school my children are attending here in Denmark is a small public school (Folkeskole) located in the countryside, comprising grades 0-6 with approximately 77 students.  I am including a bit of general information about U.S. elementary schools so that my Danish readers can understand some of the comparisons.  No doubt there are variations among schools in Denmark (as there certainly are among schools in the U.S.) so I am simply making my comparisons based on my own knowledge and experience.




1. Focus on Social Skills

During the elementary years in Denmark, there is a heavy emphasis on developing social skills.  Rather than focusing so much time and energy on the incremental progress of academic subjects, teachers and school leaders closely observe the children’s social interactions to make sure they are well-adjusted at school and are making friends.  The theory behind this is that if the children are happy at school, this will lead to them performing better academically.  As a parent, I can empathize with this philosphy–I believe most of us parents would agree that our #1 priority for our kids would be for them to not be miserable at school, and hopefully even happy 🙂 .


social skills


2. Less Testing

The testing of elementary school children in the United States has gotten out of control.  Like waaay out of control.  And I get the reasoning behind it: teacher accountability, school accountability, pinpointing the kids who need extra help.  Those things are important, but the system seems to be continuously adding additional testing without ever weeding anything out. Before we left, my eight year old was already developing test anxiety.  Additionally, so much time spent on testing severely reduces the amount of time that the teachers have left for actual instruction.




In Denmark there is no official testing until 9th grade, and no grades given until 9th grade. I did attend a Parent Teacher Conference here, and was told how my children were doing and given examples of their work, but there were no grades, no pie charts, no graphs. The teachers and I spent as much time talking about my kids’ emotional well-being as we did their academic performance.


3. Including Life Skills

These life skills are  generally integrated into the curriculum.  For example, my kids participated in gardening,










then learned about the foods,

helped cook them,






and joined the other students for a “banquet”.



There was also of course the infamous “chicken incident” which I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog :).


Additionally, the students help with the general grounds maintenance: dragging branches, planting, and even helping cut down trees.





There is also a “shop” where the kids can learn to use various tools and make random doo-dads.







It is also common for the students to use the shop to help build things the school needs–like props for a play or frames for an art project.








The school provides homemade rolls for snack every Friday, and the students help make them.  .


Each class also has a chore chart where the kids are expected to help with simple classroom chores, like sweeping after lunch or taking out the trash.




Another important life skill that is taught is “scouting” or outdoor survival skills.

These life skills are a fun and useful addition to the academic curriculum.  (Perhaps the availability of time to incorporate these skills and other extracurriculars is made possible because the classes are not spending so much time testing.)

The scouting activities include sawing down limbs to build shelters, making forts, and even building fires to cook on.  They may not know what S’mores are here, but they do have “snobrød” or, “campfire bread”.  This is a stiff bread dough that is twisted around a stick and then baked over the fire–it’s quite good and is super fun to make!






(Can also be made with a hotdog inside.  Here is a link with a recipe, in case you want to try!  http://thefamilydinnerbook.com/recipes/2011/06/09/snobr%C3%B8d-campfire-bread/ )



4. Less Homework

Beyond some supplemental review of Danish (which my kids are still trying to learn), my children are not assigned any work that they are expected to complete at home.  There is some “homework” that is assigned but it is expected to be completed during the “homework” period during school hours.  I’m sure my kids appreciate this, but to be honest, I probably appreciate it even more than they do!  Not having to remind my kids of homework every night and then stand over them while they complete it.  Not having to organize folders, sign logs, make sure each kid makes it to school with their completed sheaf of papers…truly it’s as much a gift for the parent as it is for the child.

(That being said, I really do understand the pressures on both the teachers and the students in the U.S. that lead to the assignment of large amounts of homework.  I also can see that it’s important that parents be aware and involved in their kids’ education; I just wish there was less pressure, particularly in the younger years.  And I should also confess that I must not be that anti-homework because I am currently making my kids do the Common Core mathbook with me at home to make sure they are staying on track with their peers in the U.S.  My 9-year-old of course whines, “Mom, why are you making me do extra homework.”  And I’m like, “Come on, this is pretty much the only homework you have here, I’d say you’ve got it pretty good!”)



5. More Recess

One of the first things my kids noticed was the increased frequency and  duration of recess time.  During these breaks, students are free to run around the school grounds, ride scooters or skate boards, or even sled during recess–if they’re lucky enough to have snow.


If you’re from a State with a lot of snow, like we are, you too might find it humorous that they’re sledding on like 1.5 inches of snow 🙂


Sidenote:  One of the breaks is called, “Frugt Pause“–“Fruit Break”, because the kids are given fresh fruit daily.  Pretty awesome.




6. More Physical Activity

In addition to the extra recess time, the Danish schools allocate a significant amount of time to physical activity.  My son has a 2 hour regular P.E. session every week.  In addition he was able to choose an elective, and he chose “sports”, so this gives him another 2 hour block of active time.

For some reason everyone in Denmark is really into gymnastics.  I’d say it’s pretty much the national sport, but then maybe that would actually be “Hand Ball” (look it up, it’s a thing 🙂 ).  Possibly gymnastics is so popular here because it is easy to do indoors, and the weather is often grim, but the Danes also believe it is just really good for kids’ coordination.  The school gyms here all have gymnastics equipment that can be pulled out, and gymnastics is often done during school hours:



Sometimes there is even spontaneous physical activity and outdoor excursions.  For example, at one point this school year there was a two week period when it rained every day, pretty much all day.  When one day it had finally cleared up, the teachers made the call to take the entire student body out for a brisk walk.



Biking is an important part of the culture in Denmark, so it is not so surprising that it is incorporated into the school curiculum.

Children learn bike safety and maintenance at school, and all students (even the kindergarteners!)  have been on a couple of biking fieldtrips this year where they have biked upwards of 5 miles.




During one outing, the older grades (3-6), biked about 6 miles, went swimming, and then biked another 6 miles home.



As far as I could tell, every child is expected to participate in these activities regardless of “athletic” ability.  It would appear that kids tend to rise to the challenge.

To compare to the U.S. system:  kids generally have a Physical Education (P.E.) class once or twice a week for an hour, and then that’s really it.  Biking at school is not a thing.  Sledding or using scooters or skate boards at schools is generally not allowed.   My nephew’s school even recently outlawed “all balls” because “there had been some injuries”.  I think it is safe to say that the flexibility and breadth of physical activity is not nearly so great in U.S schools. as it is at schools here in DK.


7. Time for Art 

My daughter Arabelle has an insatiable zeal for art and crafting, and the Danish school system has served her well.  There is a lot of coloring in the classroom and regular art periods, but there are also major, school-wide art projects from time to time: making props for the school play, decorating the hallway with glow in the dark stars, or creating a largea tile mosaic to decorate the bike shed.



It has been joked among my fellow American Expats here that the Danish schools spend the entire month of December only doing Christmas crafts.

This is only a minor exaggeration 🙂 .   Really the Christmas Craft Enthusiasm is too big a topic for me to get into here; I will have to dedicate an entire post to it next December–it will be epic, you can count on it :).

In the United States, the inclusion of arts in the curriculum has recently come under fire.  With the perceived need to push subjects like Math and Science, the arts have in many locations been seen as expendable.  In most elementary schools, if you get an hour a week to do art, you’re pretty lucky.


8. Shorter School Day

In spite of all these additions to the school curriculum, my kids are going to school an hour less each day, compared to their school day back in the U.S.   And for such little minds and hearts, I think that’s a good thing 🙂 .  So the school day here is shorter than in the U.S. even though, a couple of years ago, the Danish government actually added an hour or two to the length of their previous school day.  I am curious whether this change has been popular, or if they would consider shortening it again.




Although the school days are shorter in Denmark, the students do attend school more days each year as compared to U.S. schools.  There are no “Staff Development” or “Teacher Comp” days.  I’ve done some thinking on the subject, and what I have worked out is this:  The teachers still meet regularly (the Danes like a good meeting), but this is done either during school hours, or perhaps after school (since the school day is shorter).  These additional days of school attendance (as compared to the U.S. school year) I would wager are pretty much eaten up by all of the aforementioned extra curriculars.  For example, my kids had an entire week last fall that was completely devoted to biking, sports, art, and music.  I would say that approximately every month there are a couple of days alotted as “irregular school days” which are planned to be spent solely on extracurriculars.



9. Starting School Older

In Denmark, children generally do not start formal education until they are at least 6 years old.  They should be 6 years old by January 1st to enter the Folkeskole (public school system).  This is later than they would start in the  United States. For example, my daughter turns 5 next week, so in the U.S. she would be starting kindergarten next year.  Here in Denmark, she will have an additional year before she starts “real” school.  I have also been told that it’s quite common for Danish parents to make the decision to hold their children back a year and start school even one year later.  If the parents think they would benefit from it (and I have been told this happens most often with boys), there is no compunction against having the kids start school a year later.





So, looking back at these “suggestions” from Danish elementary schools (Start school older; Limit testing, grading, and homework; Focus on social skills, extracurriculars, art, and physical activity.), I think it can all be summed up pretty succinctly:


Let kids be kids.


field trip 2


*This post is about things I believe the Danish elementary schools tend to do well.  It should be noted that there are also things that I think the American schools tend to do well.

**I am curious to hear what my teacher-readers think of these observations.    I realize that in some ways it is hard to compare the United States to Denmark.  Denmark is a tiny nation of ~5.5 million people, compared to the U.S. which is vast with a population of ~320 million people.  The U.S. population is also much more diverse, and I know there are different needs in different areas.  Could any of these conceptss be incorporated into the U.S. system, and what do you think would be the results?




***Further Reading:




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