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If you want to know what New Zealand society might look like in the future, look into the eyes of the young children in your neighbourhood.
Ask yourself what those children’s lives have been like in the womb, in the first year, the first three years of life.
Their brains are 90% developed by the age of 3. Their physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are formed. If any of them have delays or difficulties, the years before they turn 5 are the best chance of maximising their outcomes. These children’s experiences have already substantially formed the adults they will become.
Ideally, by the age of 5, children have developed empathy, a sense of responsibility, self-care skills, a capacity for joy, creativity, sophisticated use of language(s), humour, problem-solving, a love of learning, tolerance, co-operation, managing fear, stress, risk, embarrassment, frustration and disappointment.
They have developed attitudes to their own bodies, food, exercise, what is good for them and what is not. They know what they like and what they don’t and they know that can change. They can cope with making mistakes and getting hurt. They know what hurts others. They have done this because they have developed a strong sense of selfhood and their place in a community.
Quality early childhood education will provide warm, calm and consistent relationships for children. Ideally, it will provide support and partnership for parents in their children’s learning. It will have access to government assistance and specialists when needed. It will provide or encourage the best nutrition and environmental conditions. It will provide age appropriate experiences for each child to foster their rapidly growing bodies, brains and emotional capacity.
Currently, there is a crisis in ECE. Children are too often in overcrowded, noisy rooms which are too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Overcrowding increases injury and illness. Too many children have little or no connection to warm, responsive adults.
Their inner working models are forming around stress responses (fight, flight or freeze). The food provided is too often not adequate, some centres’ food budget is less than $2 per day per child. There is no requirement for cooks to have any training in paediatric nutrition.
Children have no space to run, even outside. Their hearts, lungs, nervous systems, muscles, joints and tendons are not being stretched to their limit. That is what makes them grow. They have no connection with the natural world. How will they learn to care for it?
Teachers in this sector are poorly paid, their working conditions are often appalling, there is a severe shortage of qualified teachers, and more are leaving.
Teachers are buying resources from their own pockets. Teachers are being injured from lifting, carrying, poorly designed facilities, and also by out-of-control, traumatised children.
Teachers are being bullied by management and owners, unethical and barely mentored colleagues, parents with high expectations but little understanding.
Too many teachers are suffering from severe stress which is manifesting in anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Time is the key ingredient in the life of young children. When teachers are treated as professionals in collegial relationships where they, too, are developed. However, many good quality early childhood services are struggling.
Successive governments have been slow to recognise problems in the sector, especially inadequate funding, plus minimal licensing requirements and regulations.
Other services, assisted by economies of scale, build empires.
Borderline and poor centres are becoming so bad they are damaging to children and adults.
In such a context, time is money and it is not spent on children. Children with the greatest need for caring, those needing sustained one-on-one interactions are the biggest losers.
Teachers are far too busy, with too many children, too many care routines, and too much emphasis on providing accountability paperwork. Take another look at those preschool children in your neighbourhood, they are the future of New Zealand.
Whether or not you have a child, grandchild, niece or nephew attending ECE, these children are the future of the world you will be living in.
Support for ECE is vital for the future of New Zealand society.
Everyone needs to start paying attention.
■Susan Bates is a qualified and registered ECE teacher with nine years’ experience working in more than 80 centres. She is an independent researcher, published in children’s language, children and teacher’s health in ECE and founder of Teachers Advocacy Group (TAG), a support and advice Facebook forum.