The lax regulation of early childhood education centres must change, experts say

by Catherine Woulfe / 02 July, 2018
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Early childhood education centres NZ

With so little rigorous research or monitoring, it’s impossible to know how many of the country's early education centres are falling short in what they provide for children and babies. 

Welcome to winter: season of southerlies, snuffles and being stuck inside.

So, what will these next few months be like for our smallest and most vulnerable children? University of Otago public health researcher Mike Bedford points out that for this generation of littlies, spending 50-hour weeks in busy early childhood education is not uncommon.

“They might be dropped off at 7.30 in the morning and picked up at 6pm. Dropped off at 7, picked up at 5.30pm. For all of that time, the childcare centre is their world, that’s what they’re living in. That’s home.”

He has done ground-breaking doctoral research that indicates some of these “homes” may not be the cosy places we expect them to be.

Take temperature: our regulations are “indefensible”, Bedford says. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a minimum of 18°C for an adult environment, and for babies, 21°C.

“New Zealand has the lowest indoor temperature requirement [for early childhood education, or ECE] that I can find anywhere in the world,” Bedford says, “at least in jurisdictions where the requirements are in English. The only equivalent minimum temperature is Tasmania.”

Our standard is just 16°C, for children as well as babies.

Last winter, Bedford spent seven weeks monitoring 21 centres in the Wellington region and found that only two managed to stay above that “indefensible” minimum for all of the time children were present. (He gave centres at least half an hour’s grace in the mornings, when doors are often open for drop-offs.)

Four centres stayed below regulation for more than 40% of the time. And in some, temperatures dropped even lower – below 14°C – for up to 17% of the time children were there.

Public health researcher Mike Bedford. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Public health researcher Mike Bedford. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Cold and crowding are a dangerous mix. So it’s of serious concern to Bedford that by international standards, we’re also squeezing lots of children into such spaces.

Indoors, our regulations guarantee each child 2.5sq m of activity space, putting us near the bottom of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) charts.

As for the great Kiwi outdoors: try 5sq m of free space per child, up against the OECD average of 7sq m for kindergartens and 8.9sq m for childcare centres. (Our regulations cover all types of ECE except home-based, hospital-based and playgroups.)

Hard to picture? Bedford likes the analogy of a typical three-bedroom house. Let’s call it 110sq m. According to our regulations, he calculates that’s space enough for about 10 babies, 20 toddlers and preschoolers and five adults.

Now, picture a netball court. Scrap two-thirds of it. What’s left is roughly how much outside space our regulations guarantee for that house full of children.

Cheryl Greenfield is a senior lecturer at Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) who specialises in outdoor spaces. She says that although some centres organise space in a way that’s fantastic for children, others – despite meeting regulations – are “absolutely appalling”.

She is adamant: “If we really want quality, the regulations need to change.” Children need double the space outside, she reckons: 10sq m each. And inside? She’d like to see our 2.5sq m tripled.

Let us count the reasons why.

Teacher, researcher and activist Susan Bates. Photo/Getty Images

Teacher, researcher and activist Susan Bates. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Bedlam

Give children more space and you turn down the volume.

Noise: it’s the single most challenging aspect of a crowded ECE environment, says teacher, researcher and activist Susan Bates.

“I’ve been in so many centres now where the teachers are shouting all the time and don’t even know it – but they’re shouting at the children to stop shouting. The noise level just keeps rising. It is horrendous. It is extremely draining.

“I have met three-year-olds who shout as a normal speaking voice,” she adds. “This tells me exactly what the centre environment is, and has been, for a long time.”

ECE teachers talk about hearing damage as an expected hazard of the job. “Just being around so much noise, all the time,” says Northland teacher Geoff Fugle of his own hearing loss.

How noisy are our ECE centres? We don’t know for sure. The regulations give no precise upper limit on noise. There is no rigorous national monitoring and a dearth of research. But in 2009, the National Foundation for the Deaf surveyed 65 centres and found that one in five children and a third of teachers were adversely affected by the noise.

Meanwhile, Stuart McLaren from Massey University was attaching dosemeters – small gadgets that look like badges – to the clothing of children and staff in dozens of centres.

Over the course of the day, 11% of staff and 43% of children endured more noise than an adult can safely be exposed to.

Short, sharp noises are dangerous, too. The WHO says hearing damage can start at 80 decibels (dB) and children should never be exposed to peaks of sound louder than 120dB, the “human pain threshold” – about as loud as a chainsaw or a siren.

Yet in McLaren’s study, 165 of 191 children were exposed to spikes of sound that topped a much higher bar: our adult safety limit, 140dB. That’s like a .22 rifle shot. The WHO notes eardrum rupture can occur at 150dB, and that excessive noise can also trigger mental health and cognition problems, sleep disturbances and rises in blood pressure and stress-hormone levels.

McLaren calls his findings “disturbing”, and he’s particularly worried about children with sensory-processing disorders, attention deficit disorder or autism. Fugle, too: “I used to work for special education services and you’d go into a centre to visit a child who’s got autism or something similar and you walk in there and it’s just like, whoa. How is this child happy here? How are they going to learn anything? The noise levels in some places are quite startling.”

Health effects aside, noise has obvious implications for that powerful driver of academic success: language development. If you can’t hear one another speak, how are you going to have the rich conversation that we know sets up young brains for life?

Peter Reynolds of the Early Childhood Council.

Review of regulations

Peter Reynolds, head of the Early Childhood Council, representing the views and interests of about 1200 centres, is the first to concede “we don’t have nirvana. We do, however, have a very high-quality system and lots of examples of high-quality practice going on out there.”

He says if some services are failing to meet current regulations, “that needs to be fixed”.

However, he believes there is a “propensity to identify one or two things that perhaps need a bit of attention – and I’m not suggesting for a moment that they don’t – but then portray them as indicative of the entire sector. That is something we very strongly oppose.”

If there was a massive problem, that would have come to notice much earlier. “We liaise very closely with other agencies such as the Education Review Office (ERO) and the Education Council and I would have expected that, if the world was crashing down around us to the extent that some of these authors suggest, it would be very apparent in the discussions we’re having and highlighted in the issues tabled. They’re not.”

Reynolds agrees the critical issue is whether the current regulations do create a healthy benchmark. “Point taken … to some extent, I guess we do trust that the ministry [of Education] has done its research on this issue correctly before setting the regulations in place, and if it feels the regulation is no longer appropriate – because it has the mechanisms internationally to keep an eye on these things – then certainly we’d love to be part of the conversation and have a look at where we should be.

“I see no reason why [the regulations] shouldn’t be reviewed. Review is a good thing; we should be willing to have those conversations. If that leads to change, then so be it.” But doubling the indoor space, for example, would be “ridiculous” and have widespread impact. “It would shut down a significant proportion of the sector.”

It’s difficult, Reynolds suggests, to compare the temperature regulation for a baby in early childcare care in Germany with the indoor/outdoor flow that New Zealand children experience. He notes that Kiwi kids “want to be part of nature … to run indoors and outdoors right through the year … to splash in puddles … to make mudpies”. He believes that context is often missing when we compare our regulations internationally.

The Ministry of Education says all centres “must support different types of indoor and outdoor experiences, and include quiet spaces, areas for physically active play and space for a range of individual and group learning experiences appropriate for the number, ages and abilities of children attending”.

Centres “are required to provide environments that facilitate stimulating, responsive, warm and supportive interactions between staff and children”.

It’s clear that many do. Those interviewed for this story emphasise that there are warm, calm, spacious centres out there; places where it’s a pleasure to spend eight or 10 hours a day. We’ve visited some.

But the critical issue is that there is so little rigorous research or monitoring that it’s impossible to get a clear picture of how many, like those in Bedford’s study, are falling short, or how our comparatively miserable regulations are translating into reality.

The ministry can’t tell us what proportion of ECE centres are operating at the minimum specs, although it notes that the space requirement does not include the area taken up by fixed equipment or fittings, or areas that are not for play, such as sleeping rooms, bathrooms and hallways. (Sleep areas are contentious. Many centres don’t have designated sleeping rooms. Instead, some of the precious play space is set aside for sleep in the middle of the day.)

Asked whether there is research or monitoring to show the noise regulations are working, the ministry said it knew of no research showing otherwise.

But the teachers, centre owners and academics we spoke to say that in this largely privatised sector, too many centres are set up with an eye on the bottom line. And compared with other quality markers, such as staff qualifications, adult-to-child ratios and group size, the basics of the physical environment – the space per child, the temperature, noise levels, ventilation – tend to go under the radar. They are not routinely noted on centres’ ERO reports. Nor, we’re told, are they topics that parents tend to ask about, or, if they do, chances are staff and even management may not have a precise answer.

Massey University’s Stuart McLaren.

Ssshh?

On the back of its survey results, the National Foundation for the Deaf called for traffic-light-style noise meters to be installed in all ECE centres. Some centres now use these meters, but they are not compulsory.

Noise regulations introduced under McLaren’s guidance mean that centres must use soundproofing materials as necessary to ensure children’s learning and well-being and do everything they can to make sure noise does not unduly interfere with normal speech or communication, or cause any child distress or harm. They also have to ensure there are quiet spaces.

Yet these are vague compared with the regulations governing our schools, which must comply with specific decibel and reverberation limits, use certain soundproofing materials, provide hearing protection as necessary and follow strict design rules – no gyms next to libraries, for example. (New schools must hit all these targets, and those upgrading must do everything practicable to meet them.)

McLaren found damping down noise in some of the noisiest centres in his study cheap and easy. He hopes the regulations have prompted improvements in other centres, too.

A search of recent ERO reports throws up what looks like good news: only a handful of centres were warned for being too noisy last year. But reviewers give many months’ notice of their visits, and don’t usually use noise-monitoring equipment. Monitoring will always be tricky, McLaren notes, because noise levels vary significantly from day to day and can be “manipulated” when staff know they’re under scrutiny.

Reynolds said in a statement that “centres are very sensitive to noise issues and will monitor noise levels, some using very sophisticated equipment. While children are children, teachers are careful to manage environments so that reasonable noise levels are maintained at all times.”

Hear and now

A small, in-depth study by experienced ECE teacher Ann Pairman suggests that sometimes, teachers’ best efforts are just not enough.

Yet to be published, her doctoral research via Victoria University of Wellington was prompted by concern over how poorly our space regulations stack up internationally. She wanted to know what space, design and noise meant for children – not just on paper.

So, in 2015, she spent about a month in each of four centres taking notes, photos and videos, monitoring noise, talking with children and teachers and holding focus groups.

Two of the centres were repurposed houses with peripheral rooms that children could access. The other two were open-plan.

For each type, Pairman deliberately picked one centre that was built to minimum space regulations, and one that was much larger. And she found both factors – size and complexity of the space – made a significant difference to children.

All of the centres had excellent ERO reviews. That didn’t mean they were quiet.

More than half of Pairman’s readings for average background noise, across all centres, were in the 60-70dB range. She says every three decibels represents a doubling of noise, putting such readings well above the 55-60dB range at which adults and children can hold normal conversations.

The smallest, open-plan centre was the noisiest, with average background noise topping 70dB, even in an area meant to be “quiet”. That’s similar to the noise of a vacuum cleaner, or standing 15m from a motorway.

Despite open doors and soundproofing material on the walls, the din reached every part of the room at times. “I found it extremely difficult just to hear children, full stop,” Pairman says. “Even when there were only a few children inside, the noise levels were quite high.”

The house-style centres fared better, presumably because the sound didn’t bounce around in the same way, and children who felt like being noisy could do that in a different room. Those rooms could also be used for teachers soothing upset children, so noise didn’t “invade the whole centre”.

But too noisy was still far too common in the smaller centres, and some teachers were “really concerned”.

Play

Space changes how children play, too – which is to say it changes how they learn. In a small centre, Pairman would watch as children built with blocks across the floor. “By 9am, that stopped because the room was full … They would get back into the block play again about 4.30pm.”

Contrast that with the centres where children build sprawling, intricate block cities and leave them intact all day, because there is oodles of room for others to play, room for children to tuck themselves into quiet corners to whisper secrets, or spend hours engrossed in playdough or paint, without having to jostle for elbow room.

Or consider the warmth and calm of Mangere Bridge Village’s Small Kauri centre, where owner Linda Petrenko enrols fewer children than she could technically squeeze in, and maintains enviable adult-to-child ratios. Here, special thought has been put into space. In the middle of the main play area, a sturdy bunk bed has been wrapped in transparent soundproofing to create a hideaway that children can climb up to. Outside, an elevated hut doubles as a quiet space and a way for children to look out over the footpath and feel part of village life. The skies open during the Listener’s visit, but many children happily stay outside, bundled up in communal wet-weather gear.

We know the ability to splinter off into groups and play how you want to – or just have some alone time to self-regulate – is important for social and cognitive development, Pairman says.

But in the smaller, open centre she visited, and especially on rainy days, there was little opportunity for that. Disputes broke out among the children as they tried to protect their play and teachers had to intervene and constrain activity.

“I saw some beautiful things happening in all the centres I was in,” Pairman emphasises. “Even in the smallest, most open [centre] there were some really divine things happening … but there were constraints on practice.”

And couches. For Pairman, watching children climb and sprawl and rest on couches in some centres drove home just how limited others were. Teachers at one place explained they had tried to retain their couch – it was a gathering place, it made the centre feel like a home – but they simply couldn’t squeeze it in.

Pairman urges the Ministry of Education to pay equal attention to the regulation and design of ECE spaces as it has to schools.

Babies and children spend more time in ECE spaces than older children do in schools, Pairman points out – plus they’re sleeping, eating, learning to walk and talk and relate.

“And yet, for ECE we are left basically with minimal regulation, which says very little about space and has us on one of the most minimal amounts of space in the OECD, and it’s completely left to the market, really.

“There are some really, really good centres, but there’s also some real concerns out there.”

Reynolds notes there will be times in any centre – or home – where noise levels creep up. But he agrees design is critical in ECE. He hopes that Pairman continues her work, and that if it’s replicated, “some of the findings that she’s uncovering will serve a good purpose in the formation of policy”.

Doctoral researcher Ann Pairman.

Doctoral researcher Ann Pairman.

In the air

Something else happens when crowds of people are cooped up inside: they get sick.

Talk to parents with a child in care and most will tell of bout after bout of colds, tummy upsets, ear infections and “mystery viruses”. This onslaught of illness is often shrugged off; we have this idea that getting sick over and over again will be good for the immune system.

But the University of Otago’s Bedford says that ignores quality of life for young children, who are less able to cope with illness and more likely to develop complications.

“Also, sick children mean sick teachers, sick parents, plus parent time off work, and generally more illness through communities. It really does matter. Most ECE teachers have nowhere near enough sick leave and work sick a lot of the time.”

Bedford spent last year on the phone to parents such as Sarah, collecting data for his as-yet-unpublished thesis. Sarah’s 14-month-old son had been sick on and off since starting part-time daycare a few months before.

Diarrhoea and vomiting were contracted by both his parents. A cold got better just as the conjunctivitis started. Then came a nasty cough and ear infection.

Sarah tells the Listener she and her husband used up their sick leave staying home with their son when he was unwell. Still, they had no real choice but to keep him in ECE.

Bedford hopes to illuminate the links between indoor space allocations, temperature, ventilation and infection rates. It’s the first study of its kind in New Zealand, he believes, adding that more research is urgently needed.

Bedford has worked in ECE for 25 years and contributed most of the content to the Government’s health resource for ECE centres, Ngā Kupu Oranga.

He’s also spent more than a decade investigating disease outbreaks in ECE centres, then setting up and heading a proactive public health unit to support Wellington centres, and estimates he’s made about 1500 visits to 600 centres nationwide.

Like the others in this story, he has found quality varies hugely. “Parents need to know that not all is well out there. They need to be very careful with what they’re selecting.” (See noted.co.nz for tips for parents choosing or assessing ECE facilities.)

Logic suggests ECE centres should be higher risk than housing, he says: think of all those nappy changes and little hands in mouths.

“Yet, we have standards that are much lower than you would expect in a home environment.”

Lower than schools, too: learning spaces in new public schools are now expected to be warmer than 18°C while in use, and must have a thermostat on display. Major upgrades of existing schools must get as close as practicable to those requirements.

Bedford says his early research results indicate that some centres had poorly designed heating systems, and needed better understanding from architects, and better advice. He emphasises that he knows high indoor-outdoor flow makes centres tricky to heat – the ministry says the regulations reflect this – and that he is happy to help any centre that is struggling.

He hopes his research will inform improvement and understanding on a wider scale, too.

For example, he worries about the lack of teacher training in basics such as the fact that viruses are behind most of the gastrointestinal and respiratory infections of concern in ECE.

Equally, he says, many people worry about children playing outside on cold days, but don’t understand the importance of warm air inside.

Most of the viruses that will cause infections in the ECE environment, he says, survive better when it’s cool.

Outside is much less risky – providing children are wrapped up warmly – because any breeze produces “a massive dilution of those viruses”.

So, ventilation matters, too. Again, schools are now bound by a series of specific regulations, including a carbon dioxide monitor in each learning space, a maximum average level of CO2, and the ability to quickly purge stale air as required.

By contrast, regulations meant to safeguard our youngest children are hazy: ECE centres simply have to “allow fresh air to circulate”, especially in sleep rooms and sanitation areas.

And sometimes, the “fresh air” outside can itself be dangerous.

Bedford explains that concerns over noise have complicated resource consents in residential areas, meaning many owners are now looking instead to industrial areas and commute paths.

He cringes when he sees centres beside motorways or busy intersections.

Busy corners are particularly risky, he says. There, you have vehicles braking and accelerating, producing a mix of particulates from brake pads, tyres and exhaust, as well as diesel emissions.

“There’s a lot of evidence to say that those very fine particulates are not filtered out on the way to the lungs … so there’s a lot of health damage done by the inhaling of those particulates. And that’s particularly a concern for very young children.”

His concerns are echoed in a literature review published last year by independent research and testing organisation Branz. Listing concerns about asthma, respiratory infections, allergies, heart problems and cancer, regarding ECE, it concludes that air quality is “drastically under-researched” in New Zealand, and research is urgently needed. It says children are “enormously more vulnerable” than adults – and preschoolers are most at risk.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo/Getty Images

What now

Change is in the wind – maybe. Education Minister Chris Hipkins is overseeing work on the 10-year strategic plan for improving ECE.

Everything is on the table, from staff qualifications and adult-child ratios to funding – and the types of spaces we give our kids. We’ve spent far too much time focusing on lifting participation rates in ECE, Hipkins says.

“With a degree of urgency, we now need to shift the whole conversation to the quality of a child’s experiences in early childhood education.”

Most of those interviewed for this story broadly agree on what needs to change to ensure the places our kids are spending their days are happy and healthy.

When it comes to the physical environment, increased space would likely mitigate problems with noise and ventilation. But it’s not going to be easy: a change in regulation would force many centres to cut back their roll, seriously affecting their viability.

Hipkins: “The reality is with all of these things that you couldn’t just turn around overnight and say, right, here’s a whole set of new rules. Particularly where centres are going to have to adjust and renovate in order to meet them. But with a 10-year plan, you can actually put in place a time frame for it all to happen.”

In the short term, Hipkins is keen to work with local authorities to help children in urban centres get better use from public outdoor spaces.

On top of this, MIT’s Greenfield wants us to follow Australia and make it mandatory that centres give all children daily access to a natural environment, either at the centre or by going on excursions. For her, the typical raised vege garden in the corner wouldn’t cut it: children should be able to play in leaves, climb trees, walk in the bush, get muddy. She would also like ERO reports on individual centres to note the indoor and outdoor space allocated per child, and whether they have free and easy access to the centre’s outdoor area.

What about identifying centres where crowding – even to the level sanctioned by policy – is seriously compromising quality?

There’s a wide feeling that parents don’t see much more than a few minutes at drop-off and pick-up, which can be markedly different from the rest of the day.

The ministry says its regional staff can make unannounced visits to check compliance, and will work with centres falling short, making changes to their licence as necessary. Yet, records suggest it made only nine such visits in 2016, despite receiving 331 complaints, only a handful of which related to the physical environment.

Teachers are well placed to blow the whistle, but at the moment they must usually complain to management before the ministry will investigate. Obviously, that can make their working life very uncomfortable and often untenable.

Bates would like a safe, direct mechanism set up, similar to the hotline that was arranged for tertiary staff last year after revelations of widespread grade inflation.

And, she argues, ERO must start spot-checking centres. Currently, reviews are signalled months in advance. Centres have ample time to sweep problems under the mat.

Unannounced audits were introduced in 2009 to protect rest-home residents, another vulnerable population, after incidents of abuse and neglect.

Bates says they now “have to happen” in ECE, and are “totally achievable”.

“You’d only have to do one or two in an area and it’s going to make everyone else pull their socks up.”

Hipkins says ERO has directly flagged concerns over quality with him and he plans to meet with staff for “detailed conversations about what might change”.

Children at Open Spaces with their teacher, Geoff Fugle: “You can run for literally 40m without hitting anything.”

Children at Open Spaces with their teacher, Geoff Fugle: “You can run for literally 40m without hitting anything.”

Wild spaces

A child may not be able to articulate what it’s like to spend a day in a filled-to-capacity early childhood centre. But Northland teacher Geoff Fugle can. In his 15-year career, he’s done his time in centres where crowding is pushed to the legal limits.

“You climb the walls, the kids climb the walls.

“For some children, it can be a really hard environment. Some are oblivious to it, they just sail through it, but you can see in others that it builds their stress and they get really fractious. You get a lot more anger and conflict between children.”

Play is constantly interrupted – someone’s always crashing through – and there’s nowhere to sit and just have a quiet moment alone. A rainy day ratchets up the bedlam inside. Good luck developing healthy social and self-regulation skills, or strong relationships, in such an environment. Good luck trying to be a great teacher.

“You feel like you’re just pinging. You’re just trying to manage so much on so many levels, it’s exhausting. It does just feel like crowd control, it’s just, ‘Quick, get as many activities on the table [as you can], quickly push a few children at that one, set up the next lot …’”

Children at Open Spaces with their teacher, Geoff Fugle.

A child at Open Spaces.

But Fugle has found himself the sort of space other teachers pine for: he’s head teacher at a nature-oriented preschool on the outskirts of Whangarei.

It’s built on a private 40ha farm, much of which is native forest, buttressed by ancient puriri. The children spend hours each day in the preschool’s “Wild Woods”. Inside, they have about 4sq m each (not counting a big enclosed porch) and a fenced outdoor area works out to about 30sq m each. When it rains, they climb into communal wet-weather gear. Who’d want to be cooped up inside?

Space for these kids means “you can run for literally 40m without hitting anything, instead of five. You can actually get up speed. The space becomes a bit wilder and freer, and you can have trails and it becomes a bit like the backyard you’d have if you lived in the countryside. Grass, trees and places to be and go.”

Here, instead of being trapped inside breaking up squabbles, Fugle watches children trot off with a friend to a hut they’ve made. He watches the fast ones hoofing around, the quiet ones in the garden brewing herb teas. “There’s a space for everyone … There’s just less angst and a better vibe, they’re more content.”

And the name of this aspirational place? Open Spaces.

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

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