At the Neulanen daycare in the Helsinki suburb of Myllypuro, a group of young children moves about nimbly in the forest gathering broken branches to build a fort. One of the kids comes up with the idea that the thin coat of snow covering a nearby boulder could double as a slide.
The forested area in the middle of a block of flats is familiar to this group of 3- to-5-year-olds who have been spending more time this year in the local woods.
"Here we climb trees and build bridges. In the forest, team spirit grows and children play more in larger groups," says early childhood educator Karoliina Silander who works at the Neulanen daycare.
Neulanen is one of the daycare centres trialing a new programme launched in cooperation with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) called "Luontoaskel hyvinvointiin" which roughly translates as "Natural steps to well-being."
The pilot prompts young children to increase their daily interaction with nature. The children are also encouraged to eat a more plant-based diet, consider the impact of food waste, and learn about environmental responsibility and sustainability.
"It’s important to start with children and youth because these types of lifestyle habits will affect their health for the rest of their lives," says senior researcher Heli Kuusipalo from the THL.
In addition to select daycares and the THL, the Finnish Environment Institute and the Natural Resources Institute of Finland are part of the pilot.
Exposure to good microbes
Many children who grow up in the city these days have limited contact with nature. Yet frequent and abundant contact with nature and exposure to good microbes establishes stronger, more robust immune systems in children.
"If a child has a strong immune system, it will boost their resistance to many communicable diseases," says Kuusipalo.
According to the biodiversity hypothesis of health, reduced contact with the natural environment and biodiversity can weaken immunity and increase allergies and asthma, for example.
"A good microbial environment is promoted by a diverse diet containing lots of vegetables, contact with animals and spending time in nature," says Kuusipalo.
The pilot was trialed in nine trial daycare centres in Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Lappeenranta and Oulu this past autumn. Skin tissue samples were collected from the participating children in order to provide data on how microbial activity is affected by increased contact with nature, dirt and a plant-based diet.