Veli Toppinen, a nursery school teacher at Pihapirtti, chats with Ayan Dirie while holding Emilia Zhirova.The number of daycare children who are not Finnish- or Swedish-speakers varies greatly depending on the region.

There are vast differences in the number of children speaking a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their native language between daycare centres in the Capital Region.

The Pihapirtti daycare centre in Kontula holds the top spot, with just under 40 children out of 65 not speaking Finnish as their first language.

The group comprises 16 different nationalities, mostly Estonian, Russian, Somali, Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish.

"For us, multiculturalism has been a reality for quite some time," says Tarja Saariluoma, the head of the daycare centre.

When a new child starts at the daycare centre, the nursery school teachers often have to resort to the help of interpreters to talk to the parents and ask them about the child's diet, religion and cultural traditions.

The translator's help also gives the parents an opportunity to explain whether there are any traditional Finnish celebrations that they do not wish their child to attend.

Besides Pihapirtti, there are several other daycare centres in Eastern Helsinki where the proportion of children who are not Finnish-speakers approaches 40 per cent as the number of immigrants is high in certain areas. Elsewhere in Helsinki, children who do not speak Finnish as their first language typically account for six to seven per cent of the children in a daycare centre.

"Daycare is an everyday service and people usually want a daycare place close to home. However, children with an immigrant background live all over the city, so the phenomenon is seen everywhere," says Satu Järvenkallas, the head of the early education and care in Helsinki.

In Helsinki, the first experiences of daycare children speaking a language other than Finnish or Swedish at home dates back to the 1990s, so the staff are skilled in dealing with such situations, says Järvenkallas. Even though the number of children with an immigrant background has gone up rapidly, the increase has not been reflected in daycare resources.

Staff in Pihapirtti say that they also help parents of immigrant families almost daily in other matters.

"We explain what they are expected to do if they receive a letter concerning their child's health status or similar things," says Saariluoma, adding that because of this group sizes should be smaller.

She says that positive discrimination may be in the best interests of these children and their families.

Parents consider learning Finnish as one of the most important aspects of daycare.

"Language is the path to playing, learning and understanding the culture, along with being a means of creating a connection with other people," says Sole Askola-Vehviläinen, the director of early childhood education at the City of Vantaa.

In Vantaa, 17 per cent of children in daycare are not Finnish- or Swedish-speakers and the youngest children being taught Finnish at nurseries are 10 months old.

For Veli Toppinen, working as a nursery school teacher at Pihapirtti, teaching Finnish is an everyday occurrence. Out of the 21 children in his group, 17 speak a language other than Finnish at home.

"I repeat words and use short sentences. If the child does not understand what I'm saying I use pictures to make things more concrete. I also use simple sign gestures," Toppinen explains.

Children have an uncomplicated attitude and play together nicely, according to Toppinen. "No one's bullied because of their skin colour."

The early education professionals, however, have some concerns over the development of the four Finnish-speaking children in the group.

"We are concerned over the development of their language abilities. We must make sure that their development is also supported," says Saariluoma.

She believes the children will benefit from growing up into adults who are familiar with different customs, cultures, languages and religions.

Askola-Vehviläinen argues that daycare services play a major role in the integration of immigrants into the Finnish society.

"For immigrant families, we have a key role in how they are received in the community and in whether their children make friends and become familiar with the neighbouring area," says Järvenkallas.


Jyri Hänninen, Marja Salmela – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
Image: Sabrina Bqain