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I’m an American mom living in Germany. Here schools days are shorter and there are more vacations throughout the year.

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I’m an American living in Germany with my family, and it’s been fascinating to observe the differences in elementary school between the US and Germany.

My oldest son has attended elementary school in Germany for a couple of years now and I worked at an elementary school here for a few years before having my own kids, so I’ve gotten to witness firsthand what makes the German system unique.

German elementary school is 4 years

In Germany, kids go straight from preschool (which is called Kindergarten in Germany) to elementary school; there is no year of Kindergarten as Americans know it.

When my oldest child was in his last year of preschool, he did “Vorschule,” a weekly activity to prepare the kids for going to school, such as an introduction to letters and numbers. German elementary school ends in fourth grade. From there, kids are divided into three separate school systems for grades 5 to 12.

School supplies are taken seriously

Some months in advance of my oldest child’s first day of first grade, we got the list of school supplies — and it was epic. There were many notebooks that had to be a specific size and had to have a colored folder cover for various subjects. Gym shoes had to have only white soles, and every single item had to be labeled, even each individual colored pencil. Fortunately, our local stationery store is an expert in these matters, and I was able to simply hand over our supply list and receive the items.

To top it all off, German kids take a “Schulranzen” to school, a large and expensive backpack that can hold many books and supplies. Shopping for it is a rite of passage for incoming schoolchildren.

The first day of school is short and memorable

On the first day of every German school year, you’ll see some new first graders staggering around carrying a “Schultute,” a massive triangular cone filled with anything from sweets to books to school supplies. This uniquely German custom makes this day very memorable for new schoolkids — many Germans keep theirs forever.

Typically, the first day of school is shorter than usual, and many families do something special to mark the event. For my oldest child’s first day of school, we went out to lunch together and took photos of him with his Schultute.

There are many more short-term vacations

For many kids in Germany, the elementary school day is very short compared to an American school day. Classes typically start between 7:30 and 8 a.m., and the school day is usually over between 12 and 1 p.m., but sometimes as early as 11:30.

Many elementary schools offer afterschool care where kids can do homework and play in the afternoon, but depending where you live in Germany, a spot isn’t always guaranteed. Kids who have a shorter school day are assigned homework during the week. My son doesn’t get homework during the week at his day school, but he will usually have some homework over the weekend to do.

Summer break in Germany is much shorter than in the US. It’s six weeks in total. However, German kids have many shorter breaks throughout the year than American students. For instance, my son has two weeks off for Easter vacation and two weeks off for the Pentecost holidays in Bavaria.

Many kids get to school independently

While some kids do take a school bus or are driven to school by their parents, it’s more common in German for elementary school kids to go to school either totally independently or among groups of friends.

Usually starting in second grade, kids will often walk, ride their scooters, or take public transportation to school without their parents. When I drop my younger kids off at preschool, I see hordes of elementary school kids en route to school sans grownups. Schools generally hire crossing guards to supervise the street crossings right by the school building to make sure it is safer for the students.

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