Multi-million euro grant supports expansion of successful Finnish initiative supporting vulnerable children: Icehearts Europe

By Rachel Payne, ISCA

The International Sport and Culture Association (ISCA) and the Finnish long-term support programme for vulnerable children, Icehearts, have joined forces to launch a Europe-wide expansion of this successful initiative, backed by a €4 million EU4Health Action Grant. The Icehearts Europe project, which kicked off in Copenhagen on 3-5 April, is uniquely positioned to address the intersections of physical activity, mental and physical health, as it engages community sport organisations from 19 countries in adapting the Icehearts approach to different settings during the three-year project.

With mental ill health costing more than 4% of GDP across the European Union before the pandemic, according to the OECD, the need to consider mental health as an essential component of health is paramount. The mental health of young people was particularly hard hit by the Covid-19 crisis, exacerbating health inequalities among vulnerable groups. 

Grassroots sport is the biggest civil society sector across the European Union, working with children and youth on a weekly basis. The potential benefits of consciously integrating mental health with recreational sport and physical activity was evident to the Finnish founders of Icehearts, who established the programme in 1996 to help address school dropout and social difficulties among vulnerable children north of Helsinki (in Vantaa).

However, Icehearts is not solely a sport programme – sport is part of a much bigger picture that involves mentors being appointed to support children on their formative life journey for 12 years, once preschool teachers and social workers have identified children at risk of social exclusion when they are six years old. The mentor helps the children and their families manage challenges they might face at school, before and after school (including their school work and getting to school). To develop their social skills, the children are formed into peer groups who take part in after school recreational activities together.

“Sport is used as a tool rather than a starting point,” Icehearts Expert Advisor Mikko Salasuo points out. “Everything is built around the children and their wellbeing. No one is left behind and this is basically the principal idea of each Icehearts mentor. The group is built like a team that tries different sports and physical activities. This forms a sense of belonging for children who are vulnerable and might have social problems, as they learn how to become part of the group.”

Rather than being made to attend or try compulsory activities, the children are free to choose what they would like to try, which helps maximise participation and reduce anxiety.

“Everything is done by asking the children what they want to do so that everybody can participate,” Salasuo adds. “In this sense, the ideology differs a little bit from the traditional sports culture, where being good at football might be the most important thing for football teams. In Icehearts teams, the most important thing is the children. If they want to play football, then they will play football, but the main aim is the belonging and social wellbeing of the children. It’s not about them being good at sports.”

The model has been shaped over the years based on the findings of several studies. The long-term nature of the programme allows researchers to conduct longitudinal research on the students’ progress and measure its impact over time, which is not often possible in traditional recreational settings, where children may only participate for short periods of time and move on to other activities.

Icehearts Europe the first step of a broader expansion of the model
The Icehearts Europe project will run for three years, which allows for an initial two-phase expansion of the initiative. ISCA is leading a consortium of 10 full partners and 14 associated partners to develop an Icehearts Europe model, drawing from the Finnish experience and taking into account national context differences, that will be pilot tested for 18 months in Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Slovenia and Spain. The associated partners will be trained as “Next Adopters” of the programme based on the lessons learned from the pilots. The consortium will then promote the model internationally to engage more organisations in delivering the programme. 

This process will be supported by an online learning course developed by the expert partners in the project, plus national capacity building workshops in additional 7 countries, study visits to Finland and two international conferences.

“The opportunity for ISCA to lead this consortium to spread the Icehearts good practice across Europe is fantastic, because it is so close to ISCA’s DNA,” ISCA President Mogens Kirkeby says of ISCA’s role in facilitating the international rollout of the Icehearts programme.

“Our approach is to build on what works, bringing together partners from different countries and fields of expertise, integrating ISCA’s capacity building tools in the process and – in the end – seeing the benefits from creating more physically active communities! We are proud and at the same time humble to take on this challenge together with a fantastic consortium of partners.”

The project’s website is under construction and will be launched together with its first outputs later in 2023.

Key information:
Project period: January 2023-December 2025
Co-funded by: EU4H-2022 Programme
Grant amount: €4,000,000
Project Manager: Saska Benedicic Tomat, ISCA Head of Projects

Full project partners: ISCA, Icehearts (Finland), EuroHealthNet (Belgium), Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) (Finland), University of Cassino and Southern Lazio (UNICAS) (Italy), University College of Cork (Ireland), the Italian Institute of Public Health (ISS) (Italy), DGI (Denmark), SPIN (Estonia), Fútbol Más Espana (Spain), UISP (Italy) and Sports Union of Slovenia.  

Associated partners (invited, TBC): UFOLEP (France), V4Sport (Poland), BG Be Active (Bulgaria), Viken Idrettskrets (Norway), JOGG (the Netherlands), Deutscher Turner-Bund/Deutscher Turner-Jugend (Germany), SOKOL (Czech Republic), Health Life Academy (Croatia), UMFI (Iceland), Latvian Sports Federation Council (Latvia), NEMUNAS (Lithuania), MOVE Malta, Institute for Sport and Youth (IDPJ) (Portugal) and Association Sport for all Suceava (Romania). 

Posted on 19/04/2023 by Rachel Payne, ISCA

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