• Susan Bates is an early childhood teacher and lives in Auckland.
Early childhood education gives children wonderful opportunities to learn and grow, but too many of our children, and their teachers, are spending long days in crowded, noisy, chaotic and even claustrophobic environments that don't give them the chance to thrive.
Childhood -that magical time of opportunity - has been relegated to a square room with many other young children for days on end, with minimal outdoor environments, sometimes without grass or a single plant.
I have spent time in almost 40 centres and found very few gave children the chance to run around or have vigorous exercise that healthy young bodies and minds need at this age, or indeed any age. Many teachers don't feel their children have enough room to move.
The physical space in early childhood services is an important factor in determining quality. Adequate space must be provided to facilitate teaching, learning, language, physical development as well as minimising the risk of spreading infectious diseases, keeping noise at reasonable levels and not posing a risk to mental health or contributing to fatigue.
Although New Zealand traditionally regards time spent outdoors as part of a child's birthright, our early childhood education space requirements are low by world standards. Our regulations were updated in 2008 and the space was actually reduced. Most of New Zealand's early childhood centres are private profit making businesses, and the minimum space is all that children are likely to have.
The minimum required in New Zealand is 2.5sq m per child inside and 5sq m per child outside. The minimum in the US is 3.5 to 4.2 square metres per child, with a preference for 5sq m indoors. This is measured as free, clear floor space. In New Zealand, furniture is not taken into account.
In the 1960s, when New Zealand children spent a few hours a week in early education, not up to 50 hours a week as they do today, the outside space was 75sq ft per child, or 6.9sq m. This is now 5sq m, half the US recommendation of 10sq m outdoors.
And it's not just that the regulations short-change children. There are serious concerns about how the regulations are interpreted. Adults are not in the calculation, even though teachers are working there every day, and parents and support workers may also make things more crowded.
The Ministry of Education is also slow to act on complaints from teachers. And many teachers don't feel they can complain.
The complex nature of caring for groups of young children, who move around and need spaces for eating and sleeping, means the numbers in different areas are likely to exceed the regulations.
I have worked in one area where the inside space was decreased markedly when some children took their nap. On a wet day all other children and their teachers were crammed into a space with a lot of tables and chairs. It was not conducive to play or even moving around.
After a wet day teachers reported fatigue and irritability and a wet week was almost unbearable. Children were anxious, fractious and some quickly became aggressive.
Another centre had a small outdoor area attached to its infants and toddlers rooms. When two teachers were in the space, there was no room for children.
In the market driven, profit-oriented environment of early childhood, some centres will pack the maximum number of children into the minimum required space, and will receive more funding and fees for the same resources. Those centres who do not operate in this way will struggle to maintain staffing and financial viability on an uneven playing field, despite providing far better quality.
There is ample research regarding the health risks, both mental and physical when children do not have enough space to move and grow, including our increasing numbers of obese children. There is ample research regarding the poor health of too many of our children, exacerbated by overcrowding in child care, particularly infants.
What is the evidence the Ministry of Education is using to calculate space in early childhood? Why were regulations changed in 2008 to reduce the space? Why doesn't the ministry consider overseas best practice?
Why does the Ministry of Health provide no guidelines regarding ideal space and group sizes for young children? Where is the measurement for safe noise levels and ventilation? Where are the minimum acceptable working conditions for teachers and carers? And who is speaking up for the children spending a large proportion of their waking hours in these diminished settings?