Icehearts activities are preventive, long-term and comprehensive child welfare work. The aim of the activities is to prevent the exclusion of children and young people and to promote well-being and inclusion. The aim of the activities is to comprehensively support the growth and development of Icehearts children so that the children in the target group become full members of society and individuals with functional capacity and competence. The kind of adults that Icehearts children and young people themselves want to grow up to be.

The crosscutting mentality of Icehearts activities is to see the good in all children, even if they have major challenges. In addition to practices, this mentality plays a key role in Icehearts activities. The objective of the activities is to provide children and young people with a positive growth community and an experience of caring adults — To create paths for children and young people to adulthood. The aim is also to support and strengthen the families of Icehearts children.

The Icehearts model is based on a 12-year journey alongside a child and comprehensive support for the child and their family. The mentor travels the same path as the child and guides them, so they can be referred to as a “travel companion” or a “fellow traveller”. They provide support during the time the child is at school and during part of their leisure time and when they have contact with the service system. The support will allow a child who needs special support and is symptomatic to be able to function in their own living environment and become an engaged member of the school and recreational community. The purpose of Icehearts activities is to prevent the development of exclusion among children and young people, prevent them from becoming outsiders.  

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Versatile work of an Icehearts mentor

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The Finnish Icehearts was established in 1996 as a non-governmental organisation whose activities have comprised preventive and comprehensive child welfare work since the beginning. The Icehearts model has developed and grown considerably since its early years. The original concept of a social sports club has become a comprehensive operating and mentoring model, in which leisure time activities are only one part of a larger entity.

At the turn of the millennium, there was one group or team involved in Icehearts activities. Ten years later, there were five groups, of which 3 were in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area and one in Ulvila. At the end of the 2010s, there were already more than 40 groups and the activities took place in several cities. In 2023, there are 70 groups in a total of 14 cities. The number of children involved in the activities has increased to more than 1,000 in the 2020s.

The basic principle of the activities, which includes social strengthening, support in school work, group activities, support for families and taking care of children’s affairs – a reliable adult relationship and a fellow traveller on a child’s journey – has remained similar from the very beginning.

The “uniqueness” of Icehearts activities is based on the fact that the mentors operate in a long-term manner, the education work is comprehensive and the mentor operates across the boundaries of administrative branches. There is no similar long-term and comprehensive evidence-based practice in use in Finland and these are also rare internationally. Studies indicate that the longevity of activities, the permanence of the mentor and frequency of mentor work are the most effective way to support children in need of special support.


The primary objective of Icehearts activities is the prevention of social exclusion, the background factors of which are widely known. In this respect, the objective of the evidence-based practice is not directly based on a specific theory, but rather on knowledge and understanding on how supporting the child comprehensively throughout the challenging years of childhood and youth, will help prevent the accumulation of problems over 12 years and exclusion later on in life.

Theoretical starting points include work to strengthen inclusion, agency and social capital. The activities are based on the salutogenic model to health promotion, which means “influencing factors that produce health and strengthen behaviour that is positive for health. Salutogenic factors that strengthen the coping and health of the individual and community include a sense of coherence and an experience of meaningfulness and purpose”. (Koskinen-Ollonqvist et al., 2007.)     

Prevention of social exclusion is one of the key objectives of Finnish society in the 2020s. It is a key objective in promoting well-being and non-discrimination and, for example, internal security. Icehearts prevents social exclusion, prevents children from being outsiders. In this way, the activities meet the objectives of society’s different sectors. A cross-administrative Icehearts mentor helps young members of society find, use and utilise the services provided by society that they need.

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Target Group

Icehearts activities are intended (selection already in pre-primary education) for children and young people aged 7 to 18 who need special support. The need for support may include behavioural, developmental or emotional disturbances, difficult family conditions or poverty, learning difficulties or social problems. The activities are suitable for supporting the growth and development of children facing all kinds of challenges.

Children’s suitability for Icehearts activities is assessed on a child-specific basis, together with professionals, pupil welfare, early childhood education and care and social welfare. Children’s challenges and vulnerabilities vary. Many children have a variety of problems that have accumulated, while others have individual challenges that are the criteria for joining the activities. The suitability of the activities is extensive. The activities are suitable to support a wide range of social challenges, symptoms and problems. Icehearts activities are not suitable for children with the strongest symptoms who are unable to work in groups.

Icehearts activities start in pre-primary education, which involves the mentor visiting the day-care centres in their area to determine the need for support for local children. The actual group will start in the following autumn when the children start school. The activities continue until the age of 18. The aim is for all children selected for the activities to participate in the Icehearts path throughout the 12-year period.


Extensive and continuous research-based development

Icehearts activities are based on continuous and critical self-reflection in the light of research data, the utilisation of research data in the development of activities and, above all, an open and positive attitude towards research and research evidence. 

Since the mid-2010s, the activities have been developed with research and research data. In 2015–2016, sociologist Mirka Smolej carried out research and development work in the organisation. Around the same time, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare started a 13-year follow-up study on Icehearts activities. In 2019, another longitudinal study on Icehearts activities was launched at Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare when the cost-effectiveness of Icehearts activities was monitored as part of the Lapset SIB project.

The development and evaluation of the model has continued in the 2020s. In 2023, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare made a comprehensive peer-reviewed evaluation of the Icehearts model. The evaluation focused on the evidence for the practices and their effectiveness and practical applicability. The overall rating for the Icehearts model was 5/5. In 2024, the OECD made a case study of the Icehearts model.

In the Icehearts-Europe project (2023-2025), the University College of Cork and the University of Cassino and Southern Lazio assess the activities, their implementation and their suitability for different European countries and cultures. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare will also participate in this expert work. 

There is an exceptionally large amount of research data on the evidence-based practice. Follow-up studies and analysis of impacts by external researchers are a solid basis for action. Cost-effectiveness has been evaluated separately by an external and independent researcher. There are numerous ongoing studies on the activities in Finland and elsewhere. Existing research data provides an open and realistic opportunity to evaluate the evidence on impacts.

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Local implementation

When Icehearts activities are launched in a municipality, there is a ready framework based on previous practices, experiences and activities. The municipality defines a more specific area for activities (e.g. district) based on its own statistics and the concerns of professionals.

The organisation’s operating framework is usually known to municipal decision-makers, and the Icehearts organisation communicates to the municipality about the details, impacts and researched effectiveness of its activities. The municipality and the Icehearts organisation conduct an in-depth initial discussion so that both have a common understanding of the need for action, its possibility of having influence and the details of implementation. Monitoring is also agreed on together. The partnership agreement between Icehearts and the municipality defines the activities and funding in more detail. 

The scope, implementation schedule and targeting of the activities will be agreed on from these starting points. The Icehearts organisation is responsible for both the selection and recruitment of mentors as well as their induction and training. In general, Icehearts mentors are familiar with the special features of their own area and such things as the culture of leisure and hobbies, which makes it possible to adapt the activities to the living environment of children and young people and local needs.

A steering group will be set up in each area where Icehearts activities are implemented, with representatives of the organisation’s support services, mentors, representatives of different sectors in the municipality/well-being services county and possibly other experts in education and child welfare.

Municipalities have seen easy introduction and flexibility in relation to local needs, situations and conditions as the greatest strength of Icehearts activities. Launching Icehearts activities does not cause additional work for stakeholders, such as schools or social services. Instead, it is first and foremost an additional resource for existing services and structures. The greatest challenge in embedding the practice may lie in finding the mentor’s position as a cross-administrative actor and an expert and representative of the child’s issues moving across administrative boundaries -For the system to learn to understand the role of the mentor as a child’s “travel companion”.

Practical implementation of the Icehearts model

Icehearts activities are implemented in such a way that they are a part of the children’s everyday lives. Children do not adapt so much to Icehearts activities, but the idea behind travelling together through Icehearts activities is specifically to support the child in their own living environment, social relationships and networks. It can be thought that the aim of Icehearts is to adapt to the child’s life. Instead of being an activity that can be established separately, Icehearts activities become part of the child’s social worlds, at school, at home and during leisure time.

Once the area where Icehearts activities will be carried out has been decided on together with the municipality acting as the contractor, the activities will start with the so-called mapping of children. The mentor visits pre-primary education facilities in the selected area and, together with municipal experts (early childhood education and care, pupil welfare and social welfare/child welfare), selects children.

The municipality informs the area’s actors and community about the launch of the Icehearts activities and makes the first contacts with the families of the proposed children. The activities will begin for these selected and participating children the following autumn when the children start school. The premise for the activities is that the mentor works with the children selected to the group for 12 years.

Icehearts activities are implemented by establishing an Icehearts group for children aged 6 to 7. First, a core group consisting of 6-10 children in need of special support is selected. The selection of children is carried out in close cooperation with the social welfare and education services and according to the professionally identified need for support. The core group is established at the same time as the children start school. The size of the group will be increased to approximately 15-25 children in need of special support in the fourth year of operation. 

At the beginning of the activities, a large part of the mentor’s work and support for children takes place in school and afternoon activities. The mentor participates in the children’s schooling. In the afternoons, the group meets to do homework, eat a snack, engage in hobbies, exercise and spend time together. The children choose the forms of hobbies that the Icehearts group spends their free time doing. 

Afternoon activities change over the years into hobbies and shared leisure time activities. The role of the mentor in supporting school work and studies will change as children move from comprehensive school to further studies and different educational institutions. Work with the children will continue, but the focus will shift more to leisure time activities and individual support.   

Family welfare is part of Icehearts activities. The Icehearts mentor establishes a relationship early on with the child’s family. They strive to build a confidential relationship and, if necessary, acts as support, assistance and a resource for the family in matters concerning the child. 

Camps, excursions and various events provide experiences for children and families. They strengthen socialisation and the experience of inclusion and provide a place for attachment to positive memories. At family events, parents meet their peers.

An Icehearts mentor builds networks with parties working for the benefit of children. They act as a link and trustee in networks that are important for the child’s growth. The mentor guides the child and the family to the necessary services and assists in navigating the service system. The mentor also helps parents to adopt the capital needed in the service system. The mentor has information about the child and an overall picture of how to get the right services. They ensure that the child’s best interests are realised through services. 

Meaningful hobbies and taking part in hobbies are important educational elements throughout the 12-year Icehearts path. Meaningful hobbies strengthen participation and prevent social exclusion. In Icehearts activities, hobbies are used to promote group formation and socialisation as well as the building of peer relationships. They also help in strengthening children’s social skills. Participation in hobbies takes place in a safe community and environment. Icehearts activities aim to promote children developing a physically active lifestyle. Hobbies are selected and organised according to the wishes of the children and are based on compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The Icehearts mentor’s handbook identifies six key phases of activities in the 12-year path: formation of a core group, starting school, selecting hobbies, moving to secondary school, completing comprehensive school and becoming independent and completing the activities. Each stage affects the content, nature and objectives of the educational work. The phases have been modelled and good practices have been created for each phase to support educational work. 

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Ethics and values

The ethical principles of Icehearts activities are based on international human rights conventions and national legislation. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Finland, ensures every child the right to such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has imposed four obligations as general principles of the Convention, which must be taken into account in the interpretation of the Convention: Principle of non-discrimination, Principle of right to life, survival, and development, Principle of doing what is in the best interest of the child, Principle of meaningfully engaging and respecting children’s views.

The crosscutting ethical principles of Icehearts activities are also based on national legislation. According to Finland’s Constitution, no one shall, without an acceptable reason, be treated differently from other persons on the grounds of their sex, age, origin, language, religion, conviction, opinion, health, disability or other reason that concerns his or her person. In addition, the Constitution takes a stand on the position of the child: children must be treated as equal individuals, and they must be able to influence matters concerning themselves in a manner consistent with their development. 

In addition to the Constitution, the ethical premises for Icehearts activities are strongly linked to the Non-Discrimination Act (2014), the Youth Act (2016), the Sports Act (2015), the Child Welfare Act (2007), the Compulsory Education Act (2020) and the Social Welfare Act (2014). 

Icehearts activities are implemented and developed in accordance with the ethical policies and objectives of the National Child Strategy (2022). A society that respects the rights of the child is the common thread that runs through both the National Child Strategy and Icehearts activities. The key message in the Government report A Child’s Time. Towards a National Strategy for Children 2040 is consistent with the premises for Icehearts Activities: “Preventive support especially vulnerable children and young people and families in need of assistance that will help towards equal well-being, learning and inclusion is a productive investment in the future of society” (Finland’s Government  2021).

The ethical and moral criteria for Icehearts activities are stated in numerous materials describing the organisation’s activities. The first sentence of the Finnish Icehearts Association website summarises the organisation’s moral premise: “We exist so that no child is left alone. We help each child see the good in themselves and in others.” The Icehearts education ideology upholds that every child is valuable, no one is excluded and everyone deserves an opportunity. Icehearts activities are characterised by a positive attitude towards children and young people and their potential.   

At the grassroots level of Icehearts activities, ethical issues play a key role, as mentors work with children and young people in need of support and their families. In the scope of their work, mentors encounter situations, receive information and work together with the authorities on matters that fall within the scope of privacy and confidentiality. The work of mentors is particularly sensitive and this has been heavily taken into account in the induction and training of mentors. Each mentor completes training on a professional and ethical approach and work. The work of mentors includes studying the LapsenOikeudet365 (Child’s rights) materials package and identifying the above-mentioned legislation. The organisation engages in continuous discussions on both general and grassroots ethical principles and premises, and the topic is involved in almost every training in different ways.

Contact information

International affairs, senior advisor Mikko Salasuo

International affairs, Icehearts office

Managing director, Teemu Vartiamäki