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Finnish daycare centres drop grace before meals, hymns still allowed

New early childhood education guidelines from the Finnish National Agency for Education that took effect in August forbid daycare workers from saying Christian prayers before meals. Children are instead being taught about a variety of religions and ethics.

Children with their teacher at the Veteli daycare centre. Image: Katariina Poranen / Yle

Early childhood education is now religiously non-aligned in Finland.

Until August many daycare centres still included a moment of prayer, or grace, spoken in unison prior to a meal. Now young children will no longer hear "Amen" as part of their early childhood education, as per the new curriculum from the Finnish National Institute for Education (NIE) that came into effect in August.

Saying grace is considered a religious practice by the institute, and so no longer has a place in early childhood education (EEC).

This is the first nationwide mandate on early childhood education in Finland; prior to the obligatory guideline staff at daycare facilities would choose for themselves whether to say grace – and no records of practices were kept.

A thanksgiving rhyme. Image: Katariina Poranen / Yle

In the Veteli daycare centre in Ostrobothnia the staff decided to drop grace immediately, opting instead for a food-related nursery rhyme they penned themselves.

Daycare manager Auli Honkaniemi says the children were immediately on board with the change, while some employees were less enthusiastic.

"It's a big change and a little sad, too, but this is how we do things now," says Honkaniemi.

Ethics, different religions taught instead

Instead of religious teaching, EEC in Finland now offers children information on ethics and world religions, as well as agnosticism and atheism.

"The goal is for each child to receive support in their personal growth and identity formation," says specialist Kirsi Tarkka from the NIE. "Ethics teaching is also all about helping children identify with people from different cultures and religious backgrounds. Different beliefs are discussed."

The institute has yet to produce any official literature on ethics in early childhood education, but announces it will be distributing verbal guidelines this year.

"The guide will be made as clear and concrete as possible, so that the vision remains the same in the whole sector," Tarkka says.

Church collaboration, hymns still allowed

Many daycare centres in Finland have a long tradition of working with local Lutheran Christian churches. Members of the clergy have been known to perform matins and other devotional ceremonies for small children.

The National Institute of Education does not plan to end cooperation with churches despite the new winds blowing in early childhood education; churches are in fact named as official collaborators.

"We need to start thinking about this collaboration in a new light, and parishes also need to think about how to best work together," Tarkka says.

Many religious songs and hymns are part of broader Finnish culture and history, and singing them is not enough to make an event or situation religious in nature.

Some 72 percent of Finland's population identifies as Lutheran, down from nearly 90 percent in 1990.

Tarkka says that Christmas church service may still be organised for children in daycare – but the parents of children need to give their express permission for their offspring to attend, and other alternatives need to be considered.

"The end-of-daycare ceremony is often organised in a church, where the children are blessed before entering the primary school. But not all kids will be able to attend, and it can be sad for a child to be left out. Something else should be organised for them."

Honkaniemi in Veteli says that her daycare centre does just that, putting together alternative festivities for the non-religious.