Toymaker’s International School of Billund includes ‘innovation studio’ for kindergarten kids.
A two-storey yellow slide dominates one room, another resembles the set of Teletubbies, with man-made hills of green felt and Perspex rabbit holes. Lego-branded fancy dress adorns the walls of a third, with an array of princess dresses, pirate hats, knights’ tabards and fake ermine royal robes.
This is the grand opening of the first ever Lego-funded school, in Billund, Denmark. The toy manufacturer’s billionaire owner, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, greeted parents with a Willy Wonka-style spread of cakes, open sandwiches, tarts, crisps and hotdogs as he unveiled the dream school he’s been working for years to make a reality.
The International School of Billund is the culmination of Kirk Kristiansen’s vision to make his home town the international “capital of children”. Funded by the Lego Foundation, the toymaker’s charitable arm, the new private school combines the international baccalaureate with the Danish school system and Lego’s research into creativity and play. The school is subsidised, the government paying two-thirds of fees and parents covering the remainder, starting at 2,545 Danish kroner a month (£294).
The emphasis on creativity can be seen throughout, from the zany kindergarten play areas to the ergonomic classrooms, where tops of desks can be detached to allow children to file art projects on shelves, and the Piet Mondrian-style bookcases and display boards. It looks more like a trendy gallery than a school, with bright white walls and quirky installations.
A timetable pinned up in a classroom shows an average day for a P1 pupil (aged six or seven): after kicking off with a Danish lesson, pupils might have a “unit of inquiry” period to stimulate creative thinking, then lunch, another unit of inquiry, outdoor play and home time.
Maths and English are also on the weekly curriculum but the general gist of the school day is fairly fluid. “I’m trying to think of it as relaxed rather than chaotic,” says one mother of two.
One thing all the parents agree on is that their children have loved their first two days at the new school. “They seem really happy so that’s the main thing for me,” says one father. “Plus, Lego is the world’s third biggest toymaker and this is the owner’s baby – his legacy even. There’s so much pressure to succeed that this won’t be allowed to fail.”
While organisers are insistent that this isn’t a “Lego school”, Lego Foundation will continue to support the school financially until it’s sustainable through student fees – something the board estimates will take eight to 10 years. For now, the school will make full use of its ties to the toymaker.
“There’s a great opportunity for collaboration,” says Lego Foundation’s Camilla Uhre Fog, the acting chair of the school, “like getting Lego employees to work with the children and teach them – things such as design and the process of continuous improvement.”
Isn’t continuous improvement rather a sophisticated concept for three-year-olds? “No, kindergarten kids will be great at this – they have no limitations on their imagination,” says Fog.
“There will also be an innovation studio or ‘Lego lab’ for children to play in, along with 10 others already set up in local schools. So yes there’s Lego involved, but it’s a school first. Plus, who wouldn’t’ want to give their child a creative education? It’s the ultimate fantasy for many kids.”
New pupils seem to confirm this, and word of mouth is already generating new sign-ups. “We’ve got three more starting on Monday,” says Fog, “as well as a waiting list for 2015, when pupils up to the age of 16 will be admitted.”
If the school proves a success, there’s even a chance the model could be exported. Fog concludes: “I’m positive that the school will grow, not just in Denmark but elsewhere – even rolled out worldwide.”