Mia – September 4, 2017

Who doesn’t love the start of a new school year? The excitement of seeing the class roster for the first time, the pile of colorful school supplies and pristine notebooks waiting to be cracked, and the return to a regular schedule after the relaxed days of summer always holds the promise of good things to come.

But now that we’re finally hitting our school-day stride, I will confess that sending my three children back to their studies always leaves me a bit at loose ends. I’m one of those moms who truly enjoys having the kiddos around and who is, frankly, jealous of all the waking hours school commands. Especially this year, with Alex joining his big brother and sister at school all day and my oldest, Jake, facing the heavier homework load of a fifth-grader.

Out of curiosity, I spent that first too-quiet hour after school drop-off researching how the Danes do school. To my surprise, I found that the happiest country in the world is at the same time more relaxed and more regimented when it comes to the education of their youngsters.

I got a kick out of reading articles by American women living in Denmark who described fire pits on Danish school playgrounds, the better for students to roast bread sticks, and glowing candles on classroom window sills. The Danes, it seems, aren’t nearly as protective as we American parents.

Apparently, Danish moms also don’t share my reluctance at sending their little darlings back to school each year. Since nearly everyone works full-time in Denmark, parents are accustomed to turning over the care and supervision of their kids to school authorities in a country where permission slips and hyper-vigilance aren’t routine. Even preschool moms are encouraged to put their kids in daycare full-time in order to have “a chance to breathe.”

And preschool (børnehave) looks much different in Denmark—and, in my opinion, better—than it does here, with nearly 500 “forest schools” offering the littlest students a chance to get up close and personal with nature on a daily basis.

Prescho

Preschoolers in Denmark get up close and personal with nature at “forest schools.”

After preschool, Danish students advance to folkeskole, public schools that are comparable to our elementary and middle schools. Interestingly, students aren’t assigned to a specific school; their parents can choose for them to attend any school in their municipality or even a neighboring municipality.

Like in the U.S., the Danish school year runs from August to June, but their school day begins a little earlier than most American schools, at 8:00 a.m. Early grades—years zero to two—dismiss at noon, while students in years three through nine, the end of compulsory schooling, remain in class until 3:00. Unlike here, Danish kids begin learning languages at a young age. English is taught from year three, and a second language is added beginning in year seven.

Given that packing school lunches is my least favorite task, thanks to three kids who can’t agree on what they will or will not eat, I was interested to learn that their Danish counterparts eat pretty much the same thing every day: an open-faced sandwich (smørrebrød) of dark rye topped with meat, sausage or liver paste, fruit and vegetables on the side, and milk or water to drink. That’s also the same lunch eaten daily by most Danes and also, perhaps not surprisingly, served regularly (and deliciously!) at The Danish Home, where I volunteer and have had the pleasure of dining.

Smorrebrod sandwiches of liverwurst and rye bread are a staple in Danish children's school lunches.

Open-faced sandwiches of meat and rye bread are a staple in Danish children’s school lunches.

I can only imagine the outcry from Jake, Astrid and Alex if I were to pack a similar lunch for them every day. And while the chance of that happening is non-existent, I found information from a Danish study about exercise habits that is well worth incorporating into our school day. The study of nearly 20,000 young Danes between the ages of five and 19 found that kids who walked or bicycled to school instead of being driven or taking public transportation were better able to concentrate in class for up to four hours.

This is in contrast to American conventional wisdom, which emphasizes starting the school day with a good breakfast. The Danish researchers found that eating breakfast and lunch are helpful to students, but not nearly as much as exercise.

That was just the push I needed to resolve that my kids will get to school on their own steam this year, rather than piling into the van for the eight-minute drive. And I’ll be lacing up my walking shoes, too. It’s a great way to start the day!