Private centre, home-based care, playcentre, kindergarten ... the world of early childhood education is a complex and often expensive minefield. No wonder parents and caregivers are overwhelmed when it comes to the best options for under-5s. With most mums and dads in paid work by choice or necessity, the number of preschoolers in care and education facilities is higher than ever. So what should you be looking for as a parent? Why does it cost so much? And which is the best childcare option for you and your child? The New Zealand Herald finds out in a 6-part Premium series.
Tori McKinley agonised over when to put her infant daughter into childcare.
She wanted more time with Emilia, but was also nervous about the mortgage payments on the family's home in Oakura, near New Plymouth.
"Financially, it was crippling not being at work," she said.
In the end, she placed Emilia in an early childhood centre at 11 months old.
"I probably should have returned to work after the 18 weeks [of paid parental leave] was up. But I wasn't ready to hand my baby over at three months."
Emilia was enrolled for 45 hours a week at a nearby centre, from 8.30am until 5.30pm. McKinley worked 40 hours a week and needed some wiggle room for travel between work and the daycare.
Once the drive to and from home was taken into account, she got about an hour with her daughter at the end of each day.
"Emilia spent the majority of her waking life in daycare for the next two years," McKinley said.
Her guilt was "minimal" because her daughter, who is now 3, had a brilliant primary carer who helped her with her speech and confidence.
"I do wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know her other than just weekends."
Her situation underlines the difficulty many New Zealand parents face in making decisions about early childhood education: Are they financially better off putting their kids in care? Are their children growing up without them? And do infants belong in early childhood education?
These concerns have been aired since childcare became more mainstream in the 1970s, but have become more prevalent in the past 10 years as the number of children going into early childhood education has risen steadily.
Driven by social, economic and political changes, children are being enrolled in daycare earlier in their lives, for more days of the week, and are staying for longer periods each day.
So should parents be worried? And is putting younger children in ECE for longer hours bad for them?
"There is no debate," said Professor Carmen Dalli, from Victoria University's School of Education. "The answer is very clear - high-quality early childhood care is good for children."
The key words here are "high quality". If kids are being cared for by qualified staff, with good child-staff ratios (1:3 is the gold standard), and in low-stress environments, ECE is likely to be good for them even if they are there for long hours or are starting very young.
On the other hand, children who are being cared for by untrained staff in potentially stressful or overcrowded environments may not develop properly. And if they are infants, the absence of sensitive, one-on-one time can be particularly harmful for their development.
'THERE IS A WORLD BEYOND THE HOME'
Childcare took off in New Zealand in the 1970s when women's liberation encouraged more women to seek careers or return to work earlier after having a baby.
It was further boosted in the late 1980s when ECE and childcare were integrated by government and state funding increased.
ECE participation continued to grow throughout the 1990s and 2000s as stay-at-home parenting became less common and households increasingly needed two incomes to keep up with the cost of a mortgage. The number of private, licensed centres quickly grew.
"ECEs had to try and catch up to women's desires to go back to work," said NZ Institute of Economic Research associate Cathy Scott.
"And that is at both ends of the spectrum - from high-paid women in careers wanting to get back to it because it's much more acceptable, to lower-paid households where you need two adult wages to keep going."
Participation was also encouraged by successive governments. The biggest single political push for ECE was the Labour government's 20 hours' free a week, introduced in 2007.
The John Key-led National government then set a target in 2012 of getting 98 per cent of children into ECE before they went to school - an initiative which was criticised by some as a " bums on seats " approach at the expensive of quality care. In 2019, participation was at 97 per cent.
Political support for ECE was partly driven by economics - it got parents back into the workforce and reduced welfare numbers. But it was also driven by strong evidence of its benefits for children and parents.
Disadvantaged children who get high-quality ECE are less likely to be teenage parents, unemployed, welfare dependent or in poverty compared to peers who do not go to ECE.
For children from all backgrounds, links have been made between ECE participation and positive gains in maths, reading and cognitive development. It has a direct effect on children's ability to communicate with peers and adults, their curiosity and problem-solving.
"There is a world beyond the home," said Helen May, Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago. "They are getting a different world view of what life is and what their home provides."
Parents also benefit from their children going to ECE, because they are relieved from the stress of continual child care and can learn about effective adult-child interactions.
Experts note that family life still has the greatest impact on a child's outcomes, no matter how much time they spend in ECE. This means ECE cannot substitute for a good family upbringing.
"The two need to work in conjunction," Dalli said.
And the gains made by going to ECE can be lost quickly if a child does not have a smooth transition to primary school, or goes to a substandard school.
Having trained, sensitive staff is possibly the single most important factor to ensure children get the benefits of ECE, May said.
It is not enough for children to be looked after. They need responsive, thoughtful interactions - what is known in the sector as "serve and return".
Around 69 per cent of teachers in New Zealand ECEs have a teaching qualification. In kindergartens, it is 100 per cent.
Quality of environment is also important. A child's development can be harmed if their ECE centre is overcrowded, if the teachers are stressed, or if their days are overly regimented.
"Where you get the downsides are the institutions which standardise childhood," May said.
"Or where the children are being squashed into little rooms or little houses for five years of their life."
So what should parents look for when choosing a childcare?
Firstly, check how many of the staff are qualified. Then, make a site visit and watch for a few key things.
"If a child cries does somebody immediately respond to the child?" Dalli said. "Does it have space for a child to retire to and be quiet? Is there a variety of resources available?
"Pay attention to how the adult interacts with a child. Do they get comfort from the presence of the adult. Or does the adult look distant or harried all the time?"
'ARE THEY LOVED?'
New Zealand children are now going to ECE earlier in their lives. One in eight children enrol in ECE before they turn 1, and nearly half of 1-year-olds are enrolled - up from a third 10 years ago.
The amount of time spent at ECEs has also risen, from an average of 15 hours a week in 2002 to 22 hours a week in 2019.
These changes have led to social concern about the institutionalisation of New Zealand children .
There is some evidence that ECE could be better suited to children who are 1 or older. In their first year, it is more important to have as much one-on-one time with an attentive adult as possible - rather than the predominantly group-focused activity they get at ECE.
However, intensive one-on-one time can also be achieved in an ECE setting. Infants are capable of making an attachment with, and distinguishing between, up to five adults.
"It is not that it has to be one exclusive adult," Dalli said. "But the crucial matter is 'Are those adults that they are reacting with able to respond to their cues, to give them a sense they are loved'?"
Spending long hours in daycare is not in itself a bad thing.
"It depends," said Dalli. "It's hard to have a hard and fast rule."
If the attention and support provided at an ECE was similar or better to what a child was getting at home, then the child was not harmed by being there for long hours, she said.
A new childcare in Botany, Rainbow Centre, attracted attention late last year when it applied for a license to open from 6am until 8pm.
Owner Rrahul Dossri said the opening hours - since changed to 7am to 8pm - reflected a changing landscape of work, rather than children spending excessive hours at daycare. No child stayed the full day, he said.
"It is not long hours, it is flexible hours," he said. "Many of the parents are shift workers who are trying to work out childcare around their shifts. Some parents don't drop their children off until 1pm."
The average weekly ECE attendance in New Zealand is 23.3 hours a week.
Ministry of Education deputy secretary of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said recent analysis of ECE participation "supports the view that most children are not attending early learning services for excessive hours".
BETTER OFF AT HOME?
Whether it is more affordable to stay at home or put children in daycare depends on multiple factors, in particular household income, number of children, and the cost of the available daycare.
ECE subsidies only kick in at age 3. For families with two children in ECE, the costs are often bigger than their mortgage payments.
The Coalition Government has attempted to make staying home with children more affordable.
Parents can now get paid leave for 26 weeks, up from 22 weeks previously. All families can get the $60-a-week Best Start payment until their child turns one (or until they turn 3 if the household income is less than $79,000). Those who work part-time can also get Working for Families payments.
There is tentative evidence that family-friendly policies may have encouraged more parents to stay home for longer. ECE participation rates rose steadily every year since 2000, before flattening out three years ago.
McKinley, whose household income was between $80,000 and $85,000, said that if she had not worked the family would have struggled to cover its costs.
But after paying for daycare, which cost more than their mortgage, the family was only $100 better off a week.
She is now home with a second baby, Nina, and is fretting over whether she can put her in ECE.
"I cannot afford to put two kids in full time care, however I cannot afford to stay home.
"I am also reluctant to pull [Emilia] out of the centre to send her somewhere else because it is all she's ever known."
Monday: Where do we start?
Tuesday: What are the options?
Wednesday: Why does it cost so much?
Today: How young is too young?
Friday: The big players.
Saturday: Does my child feel loved?
Read the series at nzherald.co.nz/education