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Denmark Green Free School focuses on sustainability in the curriculum

In this Copenhagen school, students are more likely to be gardening or in the workshop than in the classroom. Could a new learning concept promote ecological change?

A dozen children are sitting in a circle when the bell rings. Instead of jumping up and hurrying to the next class, they close their eyes.

“Raise your hand when you can no longer hear any sound,” asks her teacher; he holds a pair of bronze cymbals in his hand, a musical instrument that would otherwise be expected in a Buddhist temple. Gradually the hands of the students rise.

In the Green Free School (Den Grønne Friskole) in Copenhagen, the education of children is first about what they need for a life with an uncertain future and in a world that is changing due to climate change: the right attitude. For example, “Urban Farming” is taught here, ie gardening in the city, and the lesson often begins with mindfulness exercises. 

“We thought about what children need to learn to contribute to the environmental change that is coming,” explains Phie Ambo, a Danish filmmaker who founded the school in 2014 with the American translator Karen MacLean. “They have to learn to be brave and take risks. And they have to learn some basic things about the planet and how we as humans live together here. I couldn’t really find that in the Danish school system.”

Students of the Green Free School teach in the forests of Copenhagen, DenmarkStudents of the Green Free School in Denmark teach nature

Revise the curriculum

In contrast to the state schools in the country, the Green Free School, with its 200 students aged between six and 15, places sustainable life at the center of the curriculum.

At first glance, the Green Free School looks quite normal. A plot of land in a post-industrial district southeast of central Copenhagen, with four unobtrusive buildings on it. Only a wooden shed and a colorful playground suggest that it is a different kind of institution.

The main building – made entirely from sustainable materials – houses a workshop where students learn to sew and work with materials such as wood, clay, wax, felt, metal and plastic. You will also learn how to compost, repair bicycles and collect rainwater.

Teachers and students examine plants at the Green Free School in Copenhagen, DenmarkThe school encourages its students to take a critical look at sustainability

When designing the curriculum, founder Ambo was inspired by the “system thinking” approach – looking at the world for underlying patterns and interconnected systems. Students are encouraged to think about these systems and how they interact by working outdoors explore the world, gain practical experience in growing vegetables and at the same time learn about edible plants and climatic conditions.

The deputy headmistress Suzanne Crawfurd explains that this method combines “project-based learning and design thinking” and means: The teachers are not at the blackboard and the children are not sitting in front of screens. Instead, there are practice-oriented projects that are carried out by several teachers across disciplines. For example, the children learn how to collect edible mushrooms, then draw them and finally make them into soup in the kitchen.

Despite this alternative approach, starting the school was easy, says Ambo. Most schools in Denmark are public, but anyone can set up a private “free school” in which the state pays around 75% of the costs and the rest is financed through school fees.

Teaching materials from the Green Free School in Copenhagen, Denmark
Classes at the Green Free School often begin with mindfulness exercises

Environmentally friendly instruction

The monthly school fees of the Green Free School are DKK 2,600, which corresponds to around EUR 350 or USD 380. At least 5% of the budget is used for scholarships that are given to children whose parents cannot afford the fees. This would ensure that the school’s students come from a “wide range of socio-economic backgrounds” in Copenhagen, said Ambo.

By law, a “free school” must follow the national curriculum. In addition to reading and writing, history, mathematics, and science are taught. The Green Free School can design the rest of the curriculum itself, for example with subjects such as “Urban Farming” and “Greenwashing”. “They have to learn to grow their own food and they have to be able to see through companies that claim them are sustainable – because we don’t have time for something like that, “explains Ambo.

The Green Free School is not the only educational institution in Europe with an “environmentally friendly curriculum”. The Hagenbeck high school in Berlin, for example, conveys the importance of species and ecosystems to students and successfully incorporates biodiversity into practice-oriented teaching.

Students of the Green Free School in the school garden in CopenhagenThe children learn with the help of practice-oriented and interdisciplinary projects

Ambo hopes that the Danish school will inspire young teachers to take a similar approach in a country where climate change is becoming a political focus.

Last December, the Danish parliament passed a climate law that obliges the country to reduce its CO2 emissions by 70 percent by 2030 compared to 1990.

Ecological change and its challenges

But the founders also faced difficulties. It turned out that the property that Ambo and MacLean had chosen for the school was contaminated with chemicals that had been used to clean ships. A disadvantage that they made to their advantage. “It used to be one of the most toxic places in Copenhagen, but we decided to include detoxification in the curriculum,” said Ambo. The 43 students with whom the school started learned “which trees and plants remove chemicals from the soil and how to live in such places and how to redesign them.”

Classes at school have now become more structured, but Ambo admits that it is not ideal for children with learning difficulties. In addition, there would be no exams. “This is definitely not for everyone,” said Ambo. “Some parents find that it sounds good until they notice that there are no tests or exams. Then they take the children out again.” At the age of 15, students switch to secondary schools, where most of them get the required certificates of achievement. 

At the Green Free School, the students should learn above all to draw their own conclusions with a view of the world. But there is a clear direction in which these conclusions should lead. “We tell the students: ‘Be critical, think independently and do what you want – but we want you to make the green change,” says school principal Junge. “That is a challenge.”

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