In Copenhagen, a school teaches ecological transition

In Copenhagen, the Den Grønne Friskole, literally “free green school (1)”, stands out in the Danish educational landscape for its training focused on the environment and ecological transition. Beyond traditional mathematics or history, students here learn to garden, cook, or even decipher greenwashing.

Nestled in the heart of Amager, a former industrial district in the southeast of Copenhagen, the “green school” does not go unnoticed. A few meters from the entrance, echoes of laughter and cries are heard. On the wall, a large mosaic features his name and logo, a bulb in which a plant sprouts. “It was the students who made this plaque at my request”, proudly announces Dorthe Junge, the director, while casting a benevolent gaze on her protégés, scattered around the courtyard. It is barely noon and recess is in full swing. The courtyard, the tables, the basketball court… Here, wood is king. In terms of buildings, some have been built from biosourced or recycled materials.

“School is an essential place in the development of children, because it is the first reflection of the society to which they have access. What food are they served? In what framework do we make them work? All of this is important,” says Phie Ambo, one of the founders of the establishment, which currently has 191 students, aged 5 to 15. In 2013, this filmmaker made a documentary on a farm in Denmark. It’s a revelation. She discovers the many lessons to be learned from the simple observation of nature. Practical knowledge often absent from traditional schools. With her husband and two other parents aware of the environment, they then decided to found a “green school” to prepare the children for the ecological transition. The Den Grønne Friskole hatched in 2014.

In the playground of the primary school ©AB

Love and be inspired by nature

In this school, students often study outdoors. A reality that is also widespread in Denmark, where 20% of kindergartens have outdoor classes. “Whether it’s raining, windy, snowing or freezing cold, we go out,” smiles Dorthe Junge, dressed in a long black raincoat with a yellow hood and colored buttons. During a school day, students can write a poem in the forest, or observe birds at the beach. For the director of the school, it is a question of making them feel through various experiences that they belong to nature and that they must take care of it. Teach them to “‘love’ nature, in the strongest sense of the verb”.

In addition to acquiring academic skills (reading, calculating, etc.), children are encouraged to develop their manual skills, which are too often depreciated in the academic environment: gardening, making compost, collecting rainwater, repairing a cycling… Very early on, they took action for the environment. This is an essential step to give them self-confidence and show them that they are actors of change, according to Dorthe Junge, who opposes a pessimistic approach: “With the little ones, we do not approach sustainable development on a large scale, we don’t tell them the world is going to collapse. This approach would be harmful for children, because they would risk developing fears and becoming paralyzed in the face of climate change. The “smallest” are the primary school pupils. College students can tackle more complex subjects, such as greenwashing.

The director discusses with primary school students ©AB

The environment is a pair of glasses that we put on each material

To integrate the establishment, private, the costs remain high: 2,500 crowns per month, or about 350 euros. But to help parents with modest incomes, a system of grants is provided for in the budget. In Denmark, founding a private school is not complicated: the State can finance it up to 75%. In return, the school must follow the national curriculum and is subject to regular checks. At Den Grønne Friskole, students study mathematics, Danish, history and even English well. But always in connection with sustainable development. Make calculations on the regeneration of wood, study a text on the subject grammatically, and translate it into English… “The environment is a pair of glasses that we put on each material, comments Dorthe Junge, who strongly criticizes the compartmentalization of subjects of study in traditional education. It’s about “taking inspiration from nature”, where everything is interconnected via ecosystems. For children, learning is much more concrete this way. »

How do students return to the mainstream academic system when they grow up? “The green school” has often had to defend itself on this point. Especially since his students do not take exams and have no marks; their evaluations are based on individualized or collective comments. According to the director, who seems familiar with the issue, there is no difficulty in returning to the public system. During their last year, schoolchildren are prepared for exams to access higher education. Also, since sustainable development has become an important concern within Danish society, the establishment has rather “the wind behind it”. “No one questions the seriousness of our courses anymore,” says Dorthe Junge.


Manual activities are essential in Den grønne friskole ©AB

A concrete pedagogy, based on projects

In elementary school, the lunch break is coming to an end. A crowd of little blond heads is gradually forming in front of the classrooms. In one of them, a few students are already installed and talking among themselves. With its framework and its multiple wooden shelves, its scraps of fabric on the ground, its sewing machines and its spools of thread, the place looks like a DIY workshop. Two little girls, seated on a bench, carefully handle a cotton bag. “We sew a bag for the bread, to keep it better,” underline in perfect English Villum and Vigga, who are respectively 11 and 10 years old. Before that, the two friends learned in class how to make their own bread (choose the flour, knead it, etc.). And at the end of the project, they will have to design an advertisement for their reusable pouch.

“Project”: this is the keyword that has characterized Den Grønne Friskole’s pedagogy since Dorthe Junge took over as director three and a half years ago. To cover the entire program, the students carry out six to eight week projects throughout the year, divided into four phases: documentary and scientific research, the search for ideas, production and evaluation. For Dorthe Junge, it’s about giving them the tools they need to think and act accordingly. “We try to develop their curiosity, their critical thinking. We don’t open their brains to pile up knowledge and then close them again,” illustrates the director, mimicking “cramming” with her right hand.


During a project around bread, students make a bag to keep it. ©AB

Thanks to this concrete pedagogy, the “green school”, an educational UFO in its infancy, now stands as a model for many establishments, public or private. Nevertheless, according to Phie Ambo, Den Grønne Friskole still needs to improve, taking into account the ever-changing knowledge and learning from its mistakes. When it was created, the school advocated, for example, democratic education; the children had the choice of whether or not to participate in certain classes. The pedagogical team finally gave up this practice, as it was not suitable for all students. The school will thus never be a finished project for the founder: “It is an odyssey, more than a final destination. »

(1) “Free” here designates a private establishment.

For further

Read also

The massage to better live the school

The school in nature: a green revolution in education?

In Copenhagen, a school teaches ecological transition – Kaizen