Schooling in Switzerland — early independence and lots of the outdoors!

A few years ago, road tripping from Amsterdam to Tuscany, we visited the beautiful town of Zurich along the way. We spent one amazing day on the lake, enjoying the beautiful open-air beaches / swimming pools called ‘Badi’. Afterwards, we stayed the night in the pretty apartment of the Prinsloo family, who were so kind to invite us over. After the children went to bed, we chatted loads about life in Zurich and the one thing that stuck with me is that in Zurich children from the age of 4 walk to school entirely by themselves. They gather in the morning at a dedicated neighbourhood spot and in small groups, following specific pedestrian paths, they walk to their school without adult supervision. They are even trained by the police in the beginning of the school year! How amazing is that?

I’ve been super curious about the details of schools in Switzerland ever since, and asked my friend Kate to share a bit more about the practical organisation of the Swiss school system. Even though some things are similar to the Dutch school system, some things are entirely different, and I loved reading Kate’s post below. The way Swiss children are encouraged to be independent from an early age and the way the outdoors is integrated in their schooling (rain or shine!) is just so very inspirational.

Schools in Switzerland

School in Zurich is idyllic. From walking to school alone to days in the forest, kids are taught independence from an early age. Instead of helicopter parenting, kids are self sufficient, self reliant, and find their own way. Sending her kids off walking on their own at the age of four can be scary for a mom who has lived in the USA and London before (where children are dropped off and picked up by the gate, or sent by school bus).

From the year they turn four years old, kids in Zurich start school: kindergarten. They have two years of kindergarten with the same teacher, five mornings a week (8:30 – 12:00) and one or two afternoons (13:45 – 15:25). Children are expected to have lunch at home daily, and to walk to and from school on their own. The first day of kindergarten the children are given an orange reflective necklace to be visible to cars. They wear this every day for two years until they start primary school.
In kindergarten, kids are expected to bring a small bag big enough for their ‘z’nuni’ (9:00 snack) to fit in. There are serious rules about what food can be in the morning snack — with a list sent home which we have posted on our refrigerator. The snack must be fruit (but not banana, which is too high on sugar!), vegetables, nuts, or certain breads or crackers. There are no sweets allowed.
Children learn social skills in kindergarten. They are not taught to read, write, or do math until primary school.

Schools in Switzerland

Primary School (year 1-3)
After two years of kindergarten, children start primary school in Switzerland; usually from 7-9 years old. They have one teacher for all three years (from first through third class). The reflective necklace is now yellow, signalling that these children are older than the orange kindergarteners.
In primary school, the big deal is the big school bag they wear to school. Inside is a set of colored pencils (called an etui), a turnen bag (gym bag), a swim bag, and a square hard shell where their homework will go each day. In first grade homework begins, as does learning the alphabet. And later they learn to read.
Homework is 10 minutes long. If they do not complete their homework in 10 minutes, they have to stop working and turn in how much they have completed. Also, homework is given in the before mentioned hard folder — it is very important that their homework does not get folded or creased.

schools in Switzerland Forest Days
In Kindergarten the children go to the forest regularly. They build a fire, play with sticks, roast sausages, and play. This blew my mind. An open fire! And 4 year olds roast their own sausages. Goodness this wouldn’t happen in the USA. But it is normal here, and they do not act amazed or shocked and so the children do as expected and act accordingly. This can also be seen on the many hiking trails in Switzerland. Children using their Swiss Army knives, or roasting sausages on sticks is just part of a normal childhood.
On forest days, kids bring a small backpack to school with a bottle of water and a sausage. They wear a hat in the summer, a full rain outfit in the spring, and a snow outfit in the winter. They go to the forest in all weather, which I love! They are not taught that weather decides what they do. They decide what to do, and then they dress for the weather.

The Police
The police come to school at the beginning of every year to teach the children how to be safe while walking alone. They are taught to wait until an oncoming car’s wheels have completely stopped before they are able to cross at a crosswalk. The day the police visit the schools, they give the kids a CD with fun songs (that we still listen to in the car), which teaches them the rules of walking to school. The songs translate ‘to wait, look, listen, and walk’ as a reminder of how to cross the street. The kids love when the police come to school and return home with many stories of the things they have learned.

The route to school
Kids walk one path to school. There are so many little stairways and pedestrian-only pathways in the city, that are safer for the kids to walk on than the sidewalks of the main streets. The kids usually walk with their neighbouring kids, meeting in the morning, and walking the safe path to school with the least amount of busy roads to walk on or cross. The parents on our street took turns walking the kids to school the first week or two of kindergarten until they got comfortable walking the entire way as a group.
The kids take their time walking to and from school. This is as much a part of their education as the classroom itself. Sometimes it takes my daughter an hour or more to walk 800 meters home from school. She stops to pick flowers, look at sheep, or chat with friends. A friend of mine said these were the best memories he has of his childhood. Those moments walking to and from school alone, just with nature and himself.

This carefree childhood is one of the most appealing aspects of our life here in Switzerland. Nature and independence are of prime importance. Kids are taught to be responsible from an early age and not to be micromanaged by parents. By having the children walk to and from school by themselves, the parent is taken out of the equation. The teacher interacts solely with the child. And with this great freedom comes great responsibility, and they learn about it a lot, in fun ways. We are so lucky to be living here in Switzerland.

Thank you Kate!! (If you would like to read more about Kate’s life in Zurich, and find great family travel tips and inspiration, please check her lovely blog ‘Mom in Zurich‘!)

PS For travel inspiration, do visit our travel pages!


Comments (8)

January 8, 2019

The Swiss education system sounds very nice, and several of the aspects are similar to how it is in Norway as well – such as dressing according to the weather and roasting sausages. Though I love the idea of young kids walking alone to school together. How does it work, though, with the kids coming home for lunch if both parents work full time? That sounds difficult and stressful.

January 8, 2019

Thank you so much for sharing our journey Esther! And hopefully you’ll pass through our flat again in the summer so we can all take a swim. xx

Esther in Amsterdam
January 14, 2019

We’ll try that! xx

January 8, 2019

I live in Switzerland and have a daughter in public kindergarten. It is indeed a great system. As a non-Swiss parent, I tend to accompany my youngest to school. She has not yet asked me to walk alone (unlike some of her classmates) and so I take advantage of this. We often walk with the children’s neighbors. As for lunch and after school care, our school (and most schools around the area) offers a paying daycare service (called either a “Hort” or Betreuunghuus”). As the kindergarten is at a more than 5-minute walk, someone from the daycare comes to pick-up the children. If the child has kindergarten in the afternoon, the daycare will send someone to drop off the child after lunch and pick them up once again. This is all a paying service and prices vary per town and based on income.

January 9, 2019

I believe some of elements can be implemented into a family in a lot of different countries. We are a French, English, Australian family living in the USA and my kids have walked to school independently since kindergarten. We have also set expectations that homework needs to be legible and done to the best of their ability as to show respect to their teacher and also to themselves. Our kids play at the park on their own and have a set time they neee to be own. If they don’t make it home on time, they know we will loose trust in them. It’s hard work when it is not ingrained in the culture however you can make it part of your family values and way you decide to bring up your family.

Annie from Brimful
January 9, 2019

I loved this post and learning a little about Swiss culture! ❤️

January 11, 2019

This is fascinating. I was very curious about what happens if both parents work, and there’s nobody at the Kindergartener’s home at lunchtime – although perhaps that’s more unusual in Switzerland? But Liliana has already given some more info in her comment above.

Esther in Amsterdam
January 14, 2019

Yes, I think, reading Liliana’s comment, that it’s similar to the Dutch system, where there are after school programs (paid for) and lunch programs — in our particular school, the children stay at school during lunch but a third party comes in to watch the children and help them with their lunch, etc. We pay a fixed fee per child for this service. xx

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