ERO report says almost half of our centres are not doing enough for under-3s in vital developmental areas.
The government is under fire for pushing "bums on seats" in the early childhood sector while ignoring concerns about quality.
Teachers' union NZEI and the Green Party say a report released by the Education Review Office showing almost half of early childhood services are not doing enough to help under-threes learn reinforces there are huge problems with quality in the sector.
"This is what happens when you slash funding to ECE, reduce teaching standards, and force more kids to attend ECE at the same time," said Green Party education spokeswoman Catherine Delahunty.
She said the government's targets - to have 98 percent enrolment in quality ECE by 2016 - was putting kids at risk by ignoring the "quality" aspect.
"This report is the latest indictment on the government's bums on seats at all costs approach."
NZEI President Louise Green said that children weren't getting the benefit of the curriculum were no surprise, given centres could have as few as 50 per cent qualified teachers.
"Untrained staff on minimum wage don't understand child development or how to turn a simple interaction into a teaching moment," she said.
Because the government did not fund centres to have all staff qualified, those that were committed to that were struggling, she said.
"NZEI calls on the government to fund services to hire 100 per cent qualified teaching staff."
The review of 235 early childhood services providers shows while they are good at establishing warm and nurturing relationships, 46 per cent lack a responsive curriculum that supports our youngest children to be "communicators and explorers".
Experts have labelled the findings "concerning", with academics saying there are major implications for children's development if they are not in a quality, stimulating, responsive setting during crucial brain development time.
"The best early childhood care, it's not just babysitting," said Auckland University research fellow Jean Rockel. "It's about more than keeping you safe. It's a critical period of learning, and about developing empathy. It's time to get things right in these first years. You don't easily get a second chance with the brain."
The report was undertaken by the Education Review Office in 2014. It was prompted by several earlier studies which also highlighted concerns about education for under-3s.
Sources say its release was going to be highly managed, as the findings are at odds with the Government's Better Public Service targets, which aim for 98 per cent of children participating in quality ECE by 2016.
It was put online yesterday after its contents were given to the Herald.
The report focused on communication and exploration - two key parts of New Zealand's early childhood curriculum, which services are obligated to implement to get a licence.
The curriculum aims to support good "learning dispositions" which set children up for better outcomes - research shows good early childhood education can support better employment, income, criminal justice and health later in life. The study found 46 per cent of services did not provide a curriculum that helped children become competent and confident communicators and explorers - 30 per cent were classified as having "limited responsiveness", while 16 per cent were "not responsive".
Those that were good had teachers who were attuned to children's communications, and encouraged children to try new things and explore.
Services that were less responsive did not build on conversations with children, and there were fewer opportunities for babies to explore and develop physical confidence.
The ERO recommended service leaders put more focus on the curriculum when planning, and review practices to ensure toddlers were well supported when transitioning between services.
Experts contacted by the Herald were pleased ERO had done the report, as it was an area that needed attention.
"If there is not a responsive setting, children are likely to be bored and unable to be comforted if in distress," said Otago University Emeritus Professor Anne Smith. "It denies children's rights to quality ECE, for them to spend their days in unresponsive settings, and is not positive for their future learning."
Early childhood professor Carmen Dalli called the report "sobering".
"It highlights again what we have known for some time, there is a need to strengthen specialist training for those working with infants and toddlers in early childhood services," she said.
Prof Dalli said the report showed little had changed from a 2009 ERO study, which also found that in just under half of the centres, teacher-child interactions did not foster and extend children's interests and ideas.
The Ministry of Education's Rawiri Bell said the ministry would bring the ERO report to the attention of ECE providers.
"We'll be reminding them they need to actively promote positive learning outcomes for infants and toddlers, and we will provide practical guidance for them to do so."
What to look for:
• Read the ERO report. It should make some mention of the curriculum, called Te Whaariki.
• If it doesn't, go in and talk to staff. They should be able to tell you about the curriculum.
• "Curriculum" broadly means the experiences, activities, and events designed to foster learning and development.
Babies 'wired for learning'
A curriculum for babies may sound extreme - but infants are "wired for learning", experts say.
Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand chief executive Nancy Bell says this doesn't mean education for under-3s should resemble school, but it needs to be about wellbeing, belonging, a caring environment - plus extra things that extend learning in a more deliberate way.
Letting children lead and explore was extremely important, she said.
"So poor-quality early childhood education might be a lot of time sitting in a high chair, while a high-quality environment would enable a child to find out things for themselves."
Auckland mum Gemma Spring said for her two boys, Leo, nearly 3, and Ben, 19 months, who both go to daycare, this didn't mean pens and paper but more "natural learning".
"There's a lot of tactile and sensory play with sand and goo," she said.
"They also do a lot of baking, which if you think about it is a conceptual form of science."
Ms Spring said she was pleased when her boys started at ABC Mt Eden to find the focus on learning came through stories and songs, or toys that help with learning development "not just mindless play".
"It's definitely considered," she said, "but still fun."