How to choose the best early childhood education centre for your little one

by Catherine Woulfe / 20 June, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Early childhood education

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Experts say the quality of early childhood education centres varies hugely. Here's what you should look for.

Education Review Office reports and early childhood education centre websites are a good starting point for parents looking to choose a centre. Parents are often told to check what proportion of staff are qualified teachers, and the adult: child ratio. But investigations should cover the physical environment, too.

Here are our top tips when choosing an early childhood education centre:

1. Pop in without notice, at a time when most parents aren’t around. Mid-morning or mid-afternoon are good. Spend as much time at the centre as you can not as a ‘policeman’, but as a potential member of the centre community. Chat with staff and children. Watch for warm, respectful interactions and children deeply engaged in their play. Look for smiles.

2. Our regulations give children 2.5sqm inside and 5sqm outside. You’re looking for substantially more than that – data is patchy, but some research recommends between 3.25 and 5sqm inside. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends a minimum of 10sqm outside. Space allocation won’t be noted in ERO reports but it’s worth asking management.

3. Air should seem fresh, not smelly or stuffy. Ignore the NZ-regulated 16 degree minimum - you’re looking for indoor temperatures closer to the WHO recommendation of 21 degrees. Public health researcher Mike Bedford thinks 18 degrees is about right. Some centres have thermostats on the wall.

4. Bedford has come to see the location of a centre’s kitchen as an indicator of quality. Is it connected to the activity space so that children can learn about food in a home-like environment? Or is it institutional, hidden away down a hall with food trolleyed in?

5. Can you easily hold a conversation with adults and children? Are children able to easily talk to each other, too? Look for bolt-holes inside – separate rooms or spaces that children can go to when they need quiet. Visit on a rainy day when more children are inside. Observe your child after a day there – are they talking in a shouty voice?

6. Outdoor areas: do children have access to real grass, dirt and sand or is it all fake grass and rubber matting? Is there a quiet ‘hideaway’ spot? Are children allowed out in the rain? Can play equipment be moved and changed or is it static (ie, boring). Don’t just think about how much fun your child has during your visit – think about how they’ll like it day after day.

7. Ask to read policies, and discuss any that you are not sure of.

8. We’re told some centres are offering prospective families Warriors tickets, free backpacks or hats, and free nappies if they enrol their child. Don’t be swayed.

9. Home-based ECE – where individuals, often mothers, are paid to provide care and education for very small groups of children in their own homes – are governed by looser space regulations than the rest of the sector. They must simply provide “sufficient and suitable space” for what the children need during the day. Playgroups and hospital-based ECE also follow different rules.

Read why experts are saying New Zealand's rules on space, temperature and noise in early childhood education centres are too lax in the latest issue of the Listener, on sale now.

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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