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What is Early Childhood Education?

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Early childhood education is a formal arrangement for the teaching and care of a young child. Early childhood education is provided for babies, toddlers and young children up to the age of 6 years. 

Licensed and publicly early childhood services are the recognised providers of early childhood education in NZ.   

There is a great little booklet that outlines for parents the different choices of early childhood education services that are available and what to look for when choosing a service for their child – see the Kiwi Parent Guide to Early Childhood Education – My ECE

Children’s learning and teaching approaches in early childhood education

Some people think that early childhood education in NZ is about preparing children for school through the structured teaching of numbers, the alphabet, colours, and reading, and writing.

Others think early childhood teachers are babysitters and not really teachers because a lot of what they do is caring for children, playing with children and guiding their play. But this is in fact what education for young children is and must involve.


The early childhood curriculum that every early childhood service must implement is called “Te Whāriki“.  It is not like a school curriculum. It does not prescribe formal subject teaching.

In NZ early childhood education our approach is that children learn through play with the guidance and support of skilled adults. 

The best start to a formal school education you can give a young child is to help the child to learn to develop independence, along with developing thinking and problem-solving skills. Read: the essential skills for children to have before starting school.

Parents may use ECE services for the purpose of child care too

Leaving child in childcare

It is not the kiwi way for parents to seek to hothouse their children.  No parent in New Zealand needs to send a child to early childhood education to get into their school of choice. There is some confirmation of this in the early findings from Auckland University’s Growing Up in New Zealand study which shows that at nine months of age the main reason for the use of regular non-parental care was for childcare because of parent study or work commitments.

The Growing Up study is following 6790 children born in the North Island in 2009 and 2010 until they turn 21.  In the 2nd report from the study “Now we are Born” data on the children at 9 months is provided. Regular non-parental care was used for 35 per cent of the children for an average of 23 hours per week.  Of those in non-parental care for more than eight hours a week 40% used an early childhood centre, and 32% were being looked after by their grandparents.  Smaller numbers were with another relative, a nanny or home-based educator.

The “Now we are Born” report states that the main reason children were in non-parental care was because of “their mother’s work or study commitments (87%). A few of these children were in ECE to give their mothers some time alone (4.0%), or to establish a relationship with their grandparent(s) (2.7%), while some parents reported that ECE was used because it was good for their child’s development, or because they wanted them to mix with other children of the same age”

Of the 65% of children in the study who were not in any regular form of non-parental care situation at nine months, the main reasons given were that ECE was not needed (76%) or that they did not want their child to be cared for by strangers (12%).  Barriers of cost, unavailability of places, transport (etc.) were cited by very small numbers of parents (between 1 – 5%).

So what this particular research shows is that for parents with 9-month-olds ECE is overwhelmingly used for the purpose of childcare.  

Benefits and risks of participating in early childhood education

The experience of going to an early childhood centre, learning to be part of a larger group and exposure to an educational curriculum can hugely benefit children. When considering how good a service is for your child, check if its meeting the six signs of quality early childhood education. There is a directory of early childhood education centres on the parents My ECE website for anyone looking childcare.

Unfortunately not every child goes home safe at the end of the day.  Serious incidents, even death, can and do occur. 

A child’s home-background and home learning environment is something that is important to take account of when determining how much benefit is gained from attending an early childhood centre

  • If the early childhood education programme is better resourced and the learning experiences provided for children are better than what can be provided for at home then the child will be advantaged academically. 
  • But if the quality of the early childhood education programme is lower than that of the quality of the child’s home learning environment, the child is not likely to be greatly advantaged by participating, family background factors, including parents’ education level and home learning environment has a much greater influence on children’s development and achievement. Having said that, every parent and every child would want to experience a quality of ECE at least equivalent to the quality of their home setting.

Also, what a lot of people do not realise is that any learning gains a child makes by attending early childhood education can wash out really quickly depending on the primary school the child later attends and its quality.  This is one reason why there is a focus on school and early childhood and school teachers working together to provide continuity and support for children transitioning to school. 

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