Onus on parents, carers and teachers to create high functioning environment where children are extended

It's 11am on a Thursday at Mt Albert Playcentre and a toddler has just covered most of herself in red paint. Another child is splashing happily at the wet area playing "cafes", while nearby, a mum reads a book with her child at an outdoor table.

This, experts tell us, is what quality early childhood education looks like - busy kids, engaged parents, lots of resources, enough supervision to ensure everyone is safe doing what they love, and educators who understand child development and the curriculum.

"This is what you want. A centre that is high-functioning should be able to extend children," says Playcentre parent Heather Carolan.

"We focus on children leading their learning. And the high ratios mean that if they're struggling we can give them 1-on-1, without being helicopter parents."

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The Herald is visiting the centre following a series on quality issues in early childhood education this week. An investigation found that the Government was aware of quality concerns - some of which have gone unaddressed - while pushing participation in the sector.

Experts say while New Zealand has a wide spectrum of providers - from home-based, to Playcentre, to kindergarten to daycare - some quality factors should be present in all. These are small groups, high ratios, qualified educators and an environment that is welcoming, safe and culturally appropriate.

At Playcentre, parents are the educators. They undertake training and run play-based sessions.

Once children turn 3, they can attend some days on their own.

Playcentres have struggled in recent years, both as more families need a dual income, and as government funding models changed.

Mrs Carolan says her family has made sacrifices to take part - they don't own a house or a flash car - but it has been worth it.

"We've built relationships, friendships, a community. And it's been really, really fun."

Of all the service types, kindergarten tends to get the best Education Review Office reports.

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Education adviser manager for Kindergarten New Zealand, Jean Elmer, said an example of one of the best was Myers Park kindergarten, in central Auckland.

As well as pre-schoolers, it had 10 babies at the centre, and had been part of research into what was best for under-2s.

"The centre is built on respect and trust," Mrs Elmer said.

"Parents feel comfortable to come in - on their break to breast feed or just to visit. We have one grandparent who comes in during her lunch hour. She loves to spend time here."

The kindergarten had "journey of discovery" books, which teachers put photos or comments in every day. The booksare taken home by kids and returned to the centre, to provide deeper knowledge to parents.

This year, they offered the books online, and could push the updates to parents' smartphones.

Home-based provider Carol Stovold, who was previously chair of the national home-based association, when looking at home-based care, parents should be particularly interested in how the provider selected its educators, who vetted them, what training they had and what ongoing support was on offer.

"We will take unqualified staff but they put them through mentoring and training programmes, and then a Level 4 polytech course," she said.

"Many go on to do a degree."

Home-based care had been an area of key concern for the sector, she said, however, some of the regulations had been clarified and she felt the sector had improved.

Tips for parents

How to ensure you're at a quality early-childhood service

• Make visits. You should feel welcome, and children should seem content and absorbed in their tasks

• Make sure you ask about who works with the children and what qualifications they have. Centres should have 80 per cent-qualified staff, and home-based care should have a qualified supervisor

• Staff should be able to tell you what your child is doing each day. There should be lots of variety and resources, room for both messy play and quiet time and outside areas too.

• Check to see if educators are engaging with children and they are well-supervised

• Read the centre's ERO report.