Meal time starts by ringing the dinner bell.

80 years of playground meals – in addition to lunch, summer games and hobby horses bring people to playgrounds

Playground meal service in Helsinki are celebrating its 80th anniversary this summer. At playgrounds around the city, a congratulatory song will be sung, but there is also a huge number of other things to do.

This bell can surely be heard from far away! It is not just any bell; it is Playground Linnunrata’s dinner bell, which is rung before the midday meal.

This summer, you can hear the history in the ringing, as the city’s summer playground meals are celebrating their 80th anniversary.

Playground meals began in 1942, during the war, when Helsinki residents were short of food and they wanted the children to have at least one hot meal a day.

When the meals start on 6 June this summer, it will be celebrated with a congratulatory song for 80 years of playground meals.

– The city has organised summer meals at playgrounds without interruption every summer since the service started, says Sirpa Jalovaara, food services specialist of the city.

There was not even a break during the coronavirus summers, although joint gatherings along with hygiene guidelines had to be considered more carefully than usual.

– We want to keep offering free summer meals to children in Helsinki because many schoolchildren are at home during summer holidays while their parents are still working, says Teemu Kariaho, leading playground instructor.

“With playground meals, we aim to promote equality among families in Helsinki and reduce inequalities.”

Summer meals are one of the attractions

Of course, there is much more to be done in playgrounds in the summer than just having lunch. Tuula Lehtoranta and Samuli Suominen, experienced instructors at Playground Linnunrata, show a photo album of the playground with photos of children playing and of the colourful history of the place.

Summer meals are undoubtedly one of the biggest attractions of playgrounds, and children learn the associated rituals quickly. For example, at Playground Linnunrata, there are always nursery rhymes or singing together before meals.

The role of the bell ringer is so popular that there is a competition in the mornings as to who gets the ringing duty of the day first.

The role of the spinner is also important. The spinner stands in the centre of a circle and, after spinning around a few times, points to where the meal queue begins.

The queue is sometimes long, as is the case in many other playgrounds in the city. There are 40–50 playgrounds participating in summer meals every year, and a total of 200,000 visitors have meals at the playgrounds during summer.

On average, 30–200 children are served a meal every day at a playground. However, on the busiest days, up to 350 meals have been served at Playground Linnunrata.

The meals are prepared at Helsinki Service Centre’s production facility in Vantaa, from where they are transported in heat containers to the playgrounds. Lunch is always at 12.00 noon at the playgrounds.

The favourite dishes in summer are fish soup, Italian stew and various puréed soups. They will also be served this summer.

Samuli Suominen and Tuula Lehtoranta say that the best thing about their work are the happy summer visitors at the playground.

Playground soon to have a summer henhouse

Those enjoying the summer meals will probably include Ebba, soon 4 years old, and Herkko, 1.3 years old. Together with their mother, Tiina Staudinger, they have come to Playground Linnunrata to spend a spring morning and explore the indoor spaces. They can be rented in the evenings and at weekends, and Ebba and her guests are going to celebrate her birthday here.

Tiina Staudinger says that Ebba has had playground meals before. For Herkko, this is completely new.

At Playground Linnunrata, he does not get bored. Herkko is particularly enthusiastic about the swing for small children, but Ebba has plenty of time to try everything. She can climb, go to the playhouse or perhaps ride on the track with a hobby horse.

In June, there will be even more to explore when the wading pool is filled with water.

The playground used to be the Hannusgård farm from the 1920s. As recently as two years ago, the rural idyll was crowned by a cowshed, and the playground had its own chickens, sheep and a rabbit during summers.

The cowshed fire was a sad event for the entire district, but Lehtoranta and Suominen have some comforting news: chickens will soon return to the playground.

City residents wished for a henhouse for summer in the OmaStadi participatory budgeting programme, where it was voted to be implemented.

Lehtoranta remembers that, one summer, there was a family from Oulu who skipped Korkeasaari and came to Playground Linnunrata instead. The sheep were in the outer pen at that time, and after seeing them, the smallest child called the mother to look. The child thought the animals were cows.

The hobby horses are in frequent use in the summer.

Unique in the world

Some of those who have a summer meal at a playground are occasional visitors, but many become regular visitors who the instructors get to know well.

Lehtoranta and Suominen have both worked at Playground Linnunrata for 25 years. Lehtoranta tells how a father who came to the park some time ago with his two children came to say hello. He said: “Hi, you’re Tuula, aren’t you?”

– He had been here when he was a child and told me that he recognised me first by my voice, Lehtoranta says with a smile.

Lehtoranta used to come to the playground to play and eat too when she was a little girl. So did Suominen. Lehtoranta’s playground was in Oulunkylä and Suominen’s in Taivallahti in Töölö.

Both have also brought their own children to playgrounds. Activities differ somewhat between the different parks. At Playground Linnunrata, you can play football, floorball, table football, minigolf, Novus, or even learn to walk on slits.

To his joy, Suominen has noticed that visitors tell others about their good experiences during the day. One of them had shared a picture on Instagram of the great floorball goalie’s gear that is available at the playground.

For parents of small children, a visit to the playground can be a relaxed moment of the day, when children can easily find company and activities.

“Good to see you after the winter”

The playground is a summer tradition for many, which starts at the daycare age and continues until teenage years. Summers are full of happy reunions when people meet friends from previous summers at the playground. At the same time, the playground is a good place to get to know other residents of the area.

The instructors say that the atmosphere at the playground is cheerful and the feedback is almost always very positive.

– We get spontaneous thanks not only from the children but also from the parents. Sometimes they say it is good to see us after the winter. I think it is good to see them too, Lehtoranta says.

In the residents’ minds, playgrounds come to life in summer, but the activities take place all year round. For example, playgrounds gather active groups of families with babies in clubs and organise integration activities for immigrants. Several playgrounds also offer afternoon snacks for schoolchildren during the autumn and spring term.

– We can be proud to be Helsinki residents. This kind of activity is unique in the world, says Suominen.

Text: Kirsi Riipinen
Photos: Laura Oja

This summer, a free hot lunch is served in some 40 playgrounds all over Helsinki. Lunch is available for children under the age of 16 from 6 June to 10 August 2022 on weekdays at 12.00 noon. Playground activities are mostly provided in Finnish. Learn more:
No registration is needed. Bring your own soup plate, cutlery and beverages.