At the Green Free School in Copenhagen, students learn how to read and write and they study math and science. But the curriculum centers on sustainability.
Students are taught how to garden and grow their own food. They make projects out of repurposed materials. They compost, collect rainwater and recycle. There are no rows of desks, no blackboards and no tests.
The goal of the school is to prepare the students — about 200 of them, ranging in age from 6 to 15 — for the green "transition." That's the transformation toward a sustainable society.
"To me it was important to make a school that would address the green transition that we were going through," Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo, who founded the school in 2014, tells MNN. She came up with the idea along with co-founder American translator Karen MacLean, who stepped away from the school about a year ago. Ambo remains as chairman of the board.
A filmmaker who works in the biodynamic world, Ambo says she has always learned how to be around the world in a respectful way. Yet, she never saw that respect taught to children in Danish schools.
"So we founded a school where sustainable learning was the focus," she says.
Sustainability from the ground up
The Green Free School (Den Gronne Friskole) was not difficult to open — in theory. Anyone can set up a private school in Denmark with the state covering about three-quarters of the cost. Tuition is 2,600 kroners (about $400) a month.
The problem was finding a facility.
"The first year, we were just hanging out in scout cabins and tents," Ambo says, until they found an old industrial paint building. "There were really toxic things going on. We decided we needed to transform the history of the ground from toxic to green."
Working from the bottom up, they cleaned the site and then completely rebuilt the interior using all sustainable materials. Everything is compostable with no chemicals.
"A lot of kids growing up in the city need to figure out how do we make a city green even though there's a lot of sins hidden in the ground?" Ambo says. "In this way, this matches the story of our school ... it's now probably the most sustainable building in Copenhagen."
A green education
The school's syllabus is modeled on systems thinking and project learning. Systems thinking is a way of learning that looks at how the pieces of a puzzle are related, instead of just looking at one small part. For example, how is a tree interconnected with other living things and what happens if part of the connection breaks along the way?
Students also focus on project learning and hands-on thinking. They grow vegetables in the garden or forage for wild mushrooms, draw pictures of them, then learn how to cook and eat them. Then do experiments on fibers and clothing, learning how much heat it takes to melt a piece of thread and what's the difference between polyester and wool and how long they last.
"They learn at any early age how to make your own data and be critical and curious about what kind of data you are presented," Ambo says.
"It's important to work with materials and build things. It's not an iPad and you have to be very patient when you learn to make a bird out of a piece of wood. Crafts nurture the ability to keep doing what you’re doing even if it's boring and you're getting blisters on your fingers."
They learn urban farming in an organic garden that is a 10-minute walk from the school. Starting this spring, their gardening classes will take a new turn as they study seven or eight different ways of gardening in experimental plots that they'll design themselves.
They also take classes in greenwashing, which is learning how to see through misleading claims about whether a company or a product is truly sustainable or environmentally sound.
"You can see through when someone tells you that we are a green, sustainable company. You can ask so where do your materials come from? Are the people that make them paid well? Are they recyclable?" Ambo explains. "It doesn't always mean anything. They need to be able to go deeper into these market strategies. We don't have time to go into the wrong direction in this green transition."
In between the science and the gardening and trips to the beach to study marine life, there are regular moments of quiet reflection with mediation and yoga for students of all ages.
"It's also important to work with your emotional well-being," Ambo says. "Not only is it about learning the basic skills like science and math, it's also about learning to be a flexible human being and how to calm yourself in a time when there’s going to be a lot of things going on and I think that’s probably key to the whole thing."
Who chooses a sustainable school?
There are different reasons parents choose to enroll their children in the Green Free School.
"Some parents come because of the green transition thing," Ambo says. "Some come because it's a small school and they want a closer relation to the whole school society. In Denmark we have these super schools with thousands of children and a lot of people aren't comfortable with this."
Although traditional education is still important at the school, students don't have tests or exams. Those parents who choose the school just because of its smaller size sometimes don't stay very long, Ambo says.
"You need to choose it because you want to be part of the green transition and want to take responsibility to help. It really takes some power to do this."
The school has a wait list and also works to serve those who can't afford to pay tuition.
Although sustainability and environmentalism are the key focus, the school works to include everyone without being too strict. They serve plant-based foods exclusively, but allow kids to bring whatever they want to eat. They serve an all-organic and vegan meal once a month and invite everyone.
"It's to show our kids that making this whole green transition can be fun and cozy and nice and it's not about NOT doing things," Ambo says. "We always say 'don't eat meat' and 'don't fly' but we try not to be too rigid because all the parents are not on their journey yet. You can participate at all stages. As long as you have the will, it's completely fine. We don't want to exclude anyone. We're all taking the first steps and learning from each other."