Three 4-year-old girls escaped a Rotorua childcare centre on trikes and were found two blocks away, having crossed a busy road.

An investigation has begun and the Ministry of Education is involved after the incident about 9am yesterday at ABC Sunset Rotorua on Sunset Rd.

One of the children managed to unlock a fire-exit gate after climbing on top of a trike, said Fiona Hughes, the deputy chief executive of BestStart Educare, which runs the ABC centres.

Hughes said staff were horrified and upset that children had managed to get out of what they thought was a safe environment that met regulations.

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The little girls travelled 320m, from the centre near the intersection with Ford Rd, across the intersection at Kusabs Rd, to the intersection at Edmund Rd and up to outside 5 Edmund Rd.

They were seen near the centre by a member of the public driving past. By the time driver pulled the car over and alerted the centre, about three minutes had passed, Hughes said.

About the same time staff realised the three girls were missing and fetched them back.

"It is a worry because we want to make sure children are safe and the care of our children and their safety is the utmost importance to us," Hughes said.

That section of the centre had 28 4- and 5-year-olds being cared for by four teachers and three other staff.

Hughes said at the time teachers were distracted by another child with behaviour issues and didn't immediately notice the little girls were missing.

She said there would be an investigation and the centre had notified the ministry which would make changes if necessary.

Hughes said parents of all three children had been told and Rotorua Lakes Council also went to the centre yesterday to ensure it met its consent, which she said it did.

The mother of the girl who unlocked the gate was "light-hearted" about it, saying her daughter often did that at home.

"Some children are naturally really good climbers and adventurous but we are not light-hearted about it. We talked to the children and told them about what is and isn't safe."

Katrina Casey, the ministry deputy secretary, sector enablement and support, said the safety and wellbeing of children was paramount.

She said the ministry visited the centre today and reviewed all its procedures.

"We are confident that the centre has taken the incident very seriously and has all the necessary measures in place to ensure the incident does not happen again."

The service is licensed for 65 children including 15 under 2-year-olds.

A parent of children at the centre, not those involved in the incident, contacted the Rotorua Daily Post and said he was not happy about it and was trying to get his children into another centre.

He said he felt the centre was often understaffed and he had raised his concerns before.

Hughes said the centre had a legal obligation to run at a ratio of one staff member for 10 children and it liked to run at a much higher teacher ratio than what was legally required.

ABC Sunset Rotorua staff on the day
* Under 2s, 9 children – 2 qualified teachers
* Toddlers aged 2 to 3 – 2 qualified teachers, 1 untrained staff
* Ages 3 to 5 – 4 qualified teachers, 3 untrained staff
- Ministry of Education