Gone are the days when little ones spent their preschool years at home. So who’s looking after our children and what effect does this have on their development? FRANK FILM reports.
For Sally Burt, mornings are a busy flurry of getting her little ones ready for preschool and out the door.
Four-year-old Cole and two-year-old Bo spend four days a week at Fundamentals Early Childhood Education (ECE) centre in Merivale, Christchurch. Cole was eight months old when he went into preschool, and Bo had just turned six months.
“They were pretty young,” Sally tells Frank Film. She notes drop-offs can be testing. “It’s sometimes emotional. Bo finds it hard every now and then, but as soon as I’m out of sight, he’s fine.”
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Sally’s among many parents with similar arrangements. There are over 5000 early childhood centres around New Zealand, and many children spend much of their time away from mum and dad, and in the care of one of these centres.
Annabel Sloss, founder of Annabel’s Educare has seen this change unfold first-hand. Having opened the doors to her first centre in 1998, she now has eight Annabel’s Educare centres around Canterbury, and many of them are at capacity.
Why the high demand? Sloss says the cost of living and pressure of needing two incomes has a lot to do with it.
“It’s isolation, too. Parents are wanting time out, that is definitely a thing,” she says. “Many parents go back because they enjoy their job, and they’re trained for that position.”
For others, like Jenny, a solo parent of five-month-old twins, there is simply no choice in the matter. The twins have just spent their first week in Annabel’s Somerfield nursery, where they stay from 7.30am until 5pm, five days a week.
“It’s a big change. I do miss them,” Jenny says. “I’m a single parent and I just do not have a choice and I have to be working full time.”
So what do all these hours at early childhood care mean for children’s developing brains?
Keryn O’Neill, knowledge manager at Brainwave Trust Aotearoa, has reviewed the research extensively. She says it’s a delicate conversation that risks making parents feel judged – and this is certainly not the intention.
Rather, the trust was set up to make scientific knowledge on early child development easy to understand.
“Studies have clearly shown us that children benefit most from ECE when they’re around three or four years of age, and when they’re attending part-time,” O’Neill says.
“For little ones who have been in non-parental care, particularly for long periods of time, there is a greater chance that they are going to have issues around their behaviour and perhaps learning, and they tend to have more physical illnesses as well. Respiratory, gastro, infections and those sorts of things.”
According to O’Neill, whoever is caring for a child in those early years needs to be able to meet their emotional needs.
It’s a lot of responsibility for early childhood teachers. How are they managing, and what is in place to respond to this growth?
Sloss explains the importance of teacher-to-child ratios.
“In our nursery, we run the ratio 1:3, though this isn’t funded. The Government funds the 1:5 ratio,” she says.
“That’s one teacher to five children ranging from 3 months to 2 years old. It’s really impossible to run that ratio.”
So the question is, does our government support what’s best for our little ones? Should there be longer supported parental leave? Or more funding for better ECE ratios, so it’s not a choice that centres have to make?
For O’Neill, the focus should be less on judgement and pressure on parents, and more on support.
“It’s about having much bigger conversations on what we can do as a country to ensure all of our littlies can have the very best start, and that their parents are supported to provide that.”