The changing lives of our children: NZ kids spending more time at preschool, starting younger

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) center 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 centers around New Zealand, and many children spend much of their time away from mum and dad, and in the care of one of these centers.

Annabel Sloss, founder of Annabel’s Educare has seen this change unfold first-hand. Having opened the doors to her first center in 1998, she now has eight Annabel’s Educare centers 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.”

New Zealand has more than 5000 early childhood centers, with childcare becoming the norm for many parents.

Frank Film

New Zealand has more than 5000 early childhood centers, with childcare becoming the norm for many parents.

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 to 5pm, five days a week.

“It’s a big change. I do miss them, ”Jenny says. “I’m a single parent and I just don’t have a choice and I have to be working full time.”

So what do all these hours at early childhood care mean for children developing brains?

Sally Burt works from home but meets clients outside home, so her two young children go to ECE.

Frank Film

Sally Burt works from home but meets clients outside home, so her two young children go to ECE.

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 behavior and perhaps learning, and they tend to have more physical illnesses as well. Respiratory, gastro, infections and those sorts of things. ”

Brainwave Trust Aotearoa knowledge manager Keryn O’Neill says children are attending ECE for longer hours and from younger ages.

Frank Film

Brainwave Trust Aotearoa knowledge manager Keryn O’Neill says children are attending ECE for longer hours and from younger ages.

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 one teacher to five children ranging from 3 months to 2 years old. It’s really impossible to run that ratio. ”

The Government funds ECE enough to have one teacher for every five children.

Frank Film

The Government funds ECE enough to have one teacher for every five children.

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 centers have to make?

For O’Neill, the focus should be less on judgment 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.”

Annabel Sloss, founder of Annabel's Educare, has a waiting list for families wanting to get their kids into ECE.

Frank Film

Annabel Sloss, founder of Annabel’s Educare, has a waiting list for families wanting to get their kids into ECE.

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