News Environment, Food

A new operating model is being created for Finnish day-care centres to promote children’s healthy relationship with nature and to build up children’s and families circular economy skills. In recent years, plenty of evidence has been accumulated of how an urban lifestyle and the city environment have changed human microbiota and compromised our immune systems.

The National Institute for Health and Welfare, the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE), the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra are creating an operating model called Natural steps towards wellbeing (Luontoaskel hyvinvointiin) for day-care centres which, among other things, aims to reduce food losses and encourage children’s exposure to diverse natural environments. In the initial phase, the model will be tested at day-care centres around Finland.

Photo: Kaisa Kuoppala

“Through this project, we wish to highlight the importance of circular economy, also in the daily lives of children and day-care centres. For example, by increasing the proportion of fruit and vegetables in meals, we can promote both children’s health and circular economy at day-care centres. Circular economy will also be supported by helping families understand the more extensive significance of food losses for the Earth’s carrying capacity”, notes Merja Rehn, specialist in the Circular economy focus area at Sitra.

In total, twelve day-care centres in Helsinki, Oulu, Jyväskylä and Lappeenranta will participate in the project. The day-care centres actively involved in the experiment will follow the practices of the Natural steps model, whereas no changes will take place in the daily lives of the control group.

“The project will help strengthen children’s immune systems in early childhood education and care”, explains Project Manager Heli Kuusipalo, Senior Researcher at the National Institute for Health and Welfare. “Exposure to diverse natural environments and a diet containing plenty of fruit and vegetables will encourage the growth of health-promoting microbiota in the body. This is particularly vital in the childhood years. Among other things, diverse microbiota will reduce the risk of asthma and allergies.”

The project is based on the National core curriculum for pre-primary education and the Meal recommendations for early childhood education and care published by the National Nutrition Council in January.

The Natural steps towards wellbeing project will change children’s daily routines at the day-care centre

Children at the participating day-care centres will be encouraged to be physically active and to explore, touch and observe nature around them. Children will also practise self-calming skills in nature. The children will also be guided in growing different plants, for instance in gardens created in playgrounds, various types of containers and green walls.

Sustainable circular economy will also be promoted by reducing food losses and teaching children what food losses are and how they can be monitored. The children will eat more fruit and vegetables and less meat at the meals served by their day-care centres. Day-care centre activities will be planned and carried out in close cooperation between the early childhood education and care services, catering service professionals and homes.

The project will begin with training provided for day-care centre staff in autumn 2018. The actual experiment will be launched at the day-care centres in January 2019. The final step will be producing an assessment of project implementation, based on which an effort will be made to mainstream the best practices nationally.

A forerunner both in Finland and internationally

The Natural steps towards wellbeing is a new operating model both in Finland and internationally. After the testing phase, it is hoped that the model can be mainstreamed in day-care centres across the country.

The National Institute for Health and Welfare will implement and coordinate the project together with SYKE and Luke. Other project participants are the National Nutrition Council, the Finnish Allergy Programme, the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health and the WWF. The project will be financed by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra and co-funded by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.

Follow the project on Twitter: @LuontoaskelH