Cooperation with Special Schools and Free Time Organizations: Erasmus+ at the Tähtiniitty School

What is so unique about the Tähtiniitty School for students with special needs in Finland? An Erasmus+ project called Moving Europe: Moving oneself and each other through sports, art, and culture across borders. Alongside partner schools in Germany and Denmark and three free time organizations, the Finnish school is working to inspire widespread positive change.

Essentially, the three schools with special students each teamed up with a free time organization in their respective countries (Finland/art, Germany/karate, Denmark/soccer) in order to incorporate special students into these activities, while simultaneously engaging in cultural exchanges with the other teachers and students in the project.

Helena Turhanen, acting principal of the Tähtiniitty School, explains that student need for companionship motivated the project. She remarks, “We have noticed that our students are very lonely. They don’t get any social contact outside the school. They have their friends here in the school, but then outside the school, they don’t get contact with other children.” The project coordinators began “Moving Europe” to offer their students a chance to make friends outside of school, as well as to expose the students to activities that would increase their self-esteem.

Each school wanted to share its strengths with the cooperating schools and organizations. For example, the Tähtiniitty School benefits from a strong art program led by a subject teacher trained in art therapy. The Finnish project coordinators knew that international students could benefit from the art experience. “We wanted to offer that to the other schools too,” Turhanen explains, demonstrating the collaborative mindset of the participants. She went on to describe the strength of the Danish physical education program, and how the Danish teachers involved in the project were eager to have students benefit from the physical education program internationally. Likewise, the German participants wanted to offer the partner students a chance to learn karate, a sport they were passionate about.

The special students felt empowered through their ownership of the project. When the Danish and German students arrived at the Tähtiniitty School, the Finnish partners held a giant welcoming ceremony in the school. The participating students from the special classes acted as hosts, and thrived with that increased responsibility. Turhanen explains that “the special students were really proud that it was our project,” emphasizing how the students took pride in making such a positive contribution to their school community.

Turhanen shares an example of the project’s wide impact when she explains how a Finnish karate instructor approached her after learning about the Tähtiniitty School. The karate instructor wanted to start a club for special children here in Finland. Turhanen reflects, “It was amazing. Now we have cooperated with her too.” When the German and Danish partners arrived in Finland, the students went to that Finnish karate instructor’s karate club for lessons. The German karate instructor appreciated the exchange, as the Erasmus+ project had already facilitated the international contact.

The free time organizations’ experiences with these special students sparks greater acceptance. As Turhanen puts it, “They see that ‘okay, we can take special children too.’” She also advocates that free time organizations should use these transformative experiences as encouragement towards integrating special students into their “ordinary clubs” too. The relationships that the Erasmus+ project has built between special students and free time organizations positively benefits everyone involved.

Building these positive relationships and crafting such meaningful experiences for these schools, students, and organizations will continue benefitting these communities and beyond, even after the Erasmus+ project comes to a close. When passionate educators, students, and organizations collaborate under a shared purpose, the impact is inspiring.

Text: Carina Traub Photo: Helena Turhanen