Children like vegetables, fruit, and berries that they have grown and cooked themselves. Day-care centres can reduce their food wastage through long-term cooperation and planning. Interaction between children and nature can be enhanced by taking long excursions into the outdoors, by planting and nurturing plants, and by letting children play with natural materials, soil, and natural water. These results are confirmed by Nature step towards wellbeing (Luontoaskel hyvinvointiin), a project aimed at finding ways to support children’s wellbeing and a sustainable operating culture at day-care centres in cooperation with teaching and catering staff.
The outcome of the project was the Nature step towards wellbeing operating model which supports work for sustainable development at day-care centres on a concrete level. The model aims at promoting health and wellbeing, learning, a positive relationship with nature and food, and environmental safety for children and families. The operating model supports learning in accordance with the fundamentals of the National core curriculum for pre-primary education.
Programme piloted at 9 day-care centres in different parts of Finland
Taking part in the project were nine pilot day-care centres from Helsinki, Oulu, Jyväskylä, and Lappeenranta. Each day-care centre developed its own ways to include Nature step activities in their daily routine.
The children were encouraged to get plenty of exercise in the yard and on forest excursions, and to observe, touch, and sense the nature that surrounds them. In several day-care centres plants or herbs were grown either outside or indoors. The use of vegetables at meals was increased and the amount of meat was reduced. The project involved planning and testing different ways of serving food. In addition, children got to help prepare and serve the food.
The project was the first to bring together the principles of good eating, recommendations for nutrition, exposure to good microbes, and sustainable development. Efforts were made to reduce food waste. During the project, day-care centres participating in the measurements recorded a wastage rate of about 25 percent of all food that was prepared. The Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) has drafted an operating model based on the results of the measurements and the interviews conducted during the project, aimed at reducing the amount of food waste at day-care centres. The basis of the operating model is to repeatedly measure waste, in order to follow how the goals are achieved.
According to the day-care centres, the Nature step activity has been a very positive experience both for the personnel and the children at the day-care centres. Children like to participate in preparing food and taking care of plants. The changes that were implemented had a positive impact on the children’s willingness to eat vegetables and their appetites.
“Most of the changes in everyday routines were easy and fast to implement. However, this means that personnel must commit to the activity and to increasing information and education for the long term. The best part of the changes has been the immediate impact they had on the children’s wellbeing and engagement. The meaningfulness of the work was enhanced by the knowledge that the changes that were enacted have been of great significance for the children’s future”, says Maarit Virkkunen, early childhood education teacher at the Välikylä day-care centre in Oulu.
Goal: to create a pioneering Nature step day-care centre network in Finland
Nature step towards wellbeing activities have been encapsulated into an operating model based on joint planning and testing at day-care centres.
The core of the activity involves nature steps, which include diverse contacts with nature, eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, and berries, sense-based and engaging food education, and the minimisation of food waste. It is good to adopt Nature steps as part of a day-care centre’s action plan to make them part of the everyday life of the centre.
”The purpose of the operating model is to inspire and encourage day-care centres to formulate and test nature steps that are suitable for day-care centres, together with the children, parents, catering staff, and others”, says researcher Iida-Maria Koskela of the Finnish Environment Institute.
Project Manager Heli Kuusipalo of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) would like to see the Nature step towards wellbeing model extended to all parts of Finland.
“The aim of the project was to significantly change attitudes and behaviour, and with its help, to reduce the threats to health and wellbeing caused by urbanisation. Adequate contacts with nature and eating plant-based food in early childhood reduce these threats. The testing phase is now over and based on the experiences gleaned, the next step will be to create a Nature step day-care centre network among the pioneers.”
The Nature step towards wellbeing project was established and coordinated by THL together with the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). The main part of the funding came from the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra. Also providing funding was the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.