A study by Finland's Labour Institute for Economic Research and the VATT Institute for Economic Research has found that children who stay at home for longer periods rather than taking a place in nursery have worse cognitive skills than those who enter daycare at earlier ages. The difference is most pronounced at the ages of four and five, but largely disappears during primary education.
The study looked at the impact of municipal grants given to families whose children don't go to daycare. The grants are intended to lighten the load on local councils, who are obliged to fund daycare places for every child that needs them.
Parents who take the municipal grants spend longer time away from work looking after their children, according to the study's findings, while children who don't attend daycare develop cognitive skills at a slower rate than those who do.
"The results could be interpreted as indicating that early years education helps teach children something useful," said lead researcher Tuomas Kosonen of the Labour Institute for Economic Research.
Biggest differences before pre-school
Researchers found the biggest differences in cognitive skills between children in daycare and outside it at the ages of four and five, although the differences disappear by the time children leave primary education.
Researchers point out that the levelling off means parents shouldn't be too concerned if their kids enter daycare later on or even miss out altogether.
Cognitive skills refer to speech, recognition, and ability to learn new things. The study relied on cognitive tests performed as part of Finland's system of compulsory mother-and-baby clinics.
The study did not consider the effect of stress or changes in attachment to caregivers that a stint in daycare might cause. Kosonen suggests however that such stress should show up in clinic tests as well, if they have a negative impact.
Children aged under three in Finland are considerably less likely to go to daycare than children in other Nordic countries, with over-threes also more likely to stay home than their counterparts in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
The gap is only closed at the age of six, when Finnish children start pre-school. One reason for the difference is Finland's generous system of financial support for stay-at-home parents, which government has decided not to reform in this parliamentary term.