Einschulung: Starting School in Germany
As I’ve mentioned here before, we have a big and exciting milestone coming up for our older boy. In just a few weeks, he finally starts school! It’s been a long wait for him. Many of his old friends back in Scotland started school last year, since the school system there is different and kids start a year or two earlier than in Germany. His cousin, who starts this year, has also already had her big day as Scotland starts school in August, as have the other kids in our family starting school, as they live on the other side of the country and the federal states here in Germany all start at different times (this is done to stagger the summer holidays so everyone isn’t off at the same time). Berlin is among the last states to start their school year, so we have to wait all the way until mid September! In the mean time, The Boy is already getting to know his school as he is attending summer camp there at the moment, and it gives me a little extra time to tell you some more about school in Germany.
‘Einschulung’ translates as ‘school enrolment’ and is the term widely used across Germany to refer to kids starting school. Other terms you’ll hear often in relation to this are ‘Schulanfänger’ (Engl: ‘school starter’) and ‘Schulkind’ (literally ‘school child’), the latter a term worn with pride – for example, you will find greetings cards with slogans such as ‘Endlich Schulkind!’ (‘Finally, you’re a school child!’) Other terms for children starting school include ‘ABC Schütze’ (literally ‘ABC marksman’, though the etymology of this term is unclear) and in the Rhineland, where my family is from, ‘i-Dötzchen’, a term referring to the dot of the letter <i>, apparently dating back to a time when <i> was the first letter children were taught to write.
The way Einschulung is marked varies across Germany from state to state, so I can only speak for Berlin. Anywhere in the world, starting school is a cause for celebration, and here in Berlin it is celebrated big style! In Berlin, the Einschulung’s ceremony takes place on the first Saturday after the standard school term begins, with the first ‘proper’ day of school the following Monday, i.e. the first years start school a week later than everyone else. More waiting!
Let’s talk about the most important thing first: the ‘Schultüte’, or school cone. Also sometimes referred to as ‘Zuckertüte’ (Engl: Sugar cone), due to it often being filled with sweets and candy. It’s basically a cardboard cone covered in paper or fabric – ranging from hand sized to around a metre long (though you can go even bigger, if so inclined), filled with gifts and treats for the start of school. Besides sweets and candy, stationery and other school supplies kids will need for the start of school are popular traditional fillings, though many parents are now filling their children’s school cones with all kids of gifts, some specifically related to school, others just general gifts that their children might like. In Germany, you can buy ready made ‘Schultüten’ in stationary or toy shops, ‘blank’ cones to decorate yourself, or many parents also make them completely from scratch. I have a tutorial for you tomorrow showing you how to make a ‘Schultüte’, and later this week I will share what’s going in my son’s ‘Schultüte’! (Edit: Check out my follow-up post for the tutorial!)
The ‘Schultüte’ tradition in Germany dates back to the early 19th century, and popular German children’s author Erich Kästner (1899 – 1974) talks about his first day of school in 1906, and his ‘Schultüte’, in his memoirs. Although I started school in Scotland, I still got my German ‘Schultüte’. I was living there with my German family after all, and it’s just one of those traditions that you take with you. And I think the parents get just as excited about making them for their kids, as the kids get about receiving them (well, I can only speak for myself…)
Another big part of starting school in Germany, is getting your ‘Schulranzen’ or school bag. When I started school, I had a little leather satchel. Here, it’s common for kids to wear heavy-duty, almost box-like backpacks that have been ergonomically designed to support and protect a child’s spine and shoulders against the weight they have to carry every day. Kids here don’t have lockers, and carry everything around with them. A good ‘Schulranzen’ will have lots of padding in the right places, broad straps, extra straps across the chest and/or hips, and lots of reflectors in the right places, corresponding with recommendations for traffic safety regulations. The irony of these monstrous bags being designed to shoulder some of the weight kids need to carry around, is that they themselves can easily weigh over 1kg. There are many different brands to choose from, and they all have one thing in common – they cost a fortune! Prices range from around 100 Euros to over 200 Euros, depending on the brand and model. I’ve heard from many other expat parents, who decided not to buy in to the hype and just got their kids ‘normal’ school bags. But I’ve heard from equally as many, who then later bought a ‘Schulranzen’ after all, as their children’s backs were suffering carrying all the weight around in a regular bag. Since our boy is a bit on the slight side, we decided to bite the bullet and go the whole hog. We also didn’t want him to stand out for not having a Schulranzen. Peer pressure, I know, but he stands out enough already. We went to a special store when you can be fitted and try out many different models. Most of them totally swamped him and, so he says, hurt his shoulders, so we ended up with an extra lightweight model (‘only’ 800g) that’s less boxy. Of course, it cost a little more too. At least it has an extendable back and can grow with him for a few years, and the grandparents chipped in a bit too.
So, now we’ve all got over the fun of ‘Schultüten’ and the shock of ‘Schulranzen’, let’s get back to the celebration! The first part of the celebration is the ‘Einschulungs-Feier,’ or enrolment ceremony. Ours is taking place on the aforementioned Saturday morning, at the school. No actual classes take place on this day. It’s a special event to welcome the new first years to the school, and to mark this major milestone in their lives. It’s also a chance for the children and their families to get to know the school and each other, including children from the second and third years who will be in their class, as up until fourth year the children are taught in mixed age groups. My son received a personal invitation to the ceremony from his new teacher, which had been hand decorated, presumably by other older children already in his class. I thought this was such a lovely idea! The invitation states that there will be poems, songs and dancing on the day to welcome everyone, and that he need bring nothing with him other than his ‘Schultüte’.
After the official ceremony, most families continue the celebration at home. Many families make this a major event, similar to a significant birthday. Some even book a cafe or restaurant for the afternoon. We’ll be going a bit more low key celebrating at our place. If we’re lucky and this Indian summer holds (touch wood) we may even be able to have afternoon tea in our back yard. The shops are full of any kind of party decor you could possibly need, all tailored towards the Einschulung. Tablecloths, napkins, bunting, balloons…choices range from ‘ABC’ motifs (I picked up a couple of ABC napkins) to things emblazoned with ‘Schulkind’. There are Einschulung’s cakes, sweets, chocolate, and today I noticed that even the bread counter at our local supermarket was selling Bretzel in A, B and C letter shapes! Similarly, the shops are full of Einschulung’s gifts, but more about that later this week. I’ve also put together a Pinterest board with party decorations and other ideas for celebrating the first day of school >> Einschulung: Celebrating the Start of School
It’s not unusual for extended family to attend the Einschulung’s ceremony and subsequent celebrations. Many grandparents, and often other family members, travel from quite far away to be there. My parents will be driving several hundred miles, from the other side of Germany, to join us for the big day. I’ve heard from other first year parents – whom I have met at the summer camp – that they are bringing a whole entourage along.
It certainly all seems very different to Scotland, where the day mostly gets marked with a ‘first day of school in your new uniform’ photo, and then off you go. At least I don’t remember such extravagance when I started school in Edinburgh – though, living there with my German family, I did get a rather large ‘Schultüte’. Oh, the best of both worlds!
Do you have kids starting school for the first time this summer? How did you celebrate or will you be celebrating?