What New Zealand Can Teach Us About Early Education

What New Zealand Can Teach Us About Early Education

"My preschooler is so excited about going to day care sometimes, he literally drags me out the door...."
- Cathy Newman, Mother, New Zealand

What is it about the early childhood education system in New Zealand that has families, children and educators so excited about learning?

For a start, New Zealand's system focuses on providing quality, affordable care to every single child.  In this post we'll take a closer look at what makes their system great.

First off, let's take a look at Te Whariki, New Zealand's early childhood education curriculum and policy document. 

Te Whariki translates from the indigenous Māori language of New Zealand as ‘a woven mat for all to stand on’. It’s a bi-cultural and bilingual document (English and Maori) founded on the following aspirations for children:

… to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.

There are five 'strands' defined in the curriculum that are in the major interests of infants, toddlers and young children:  Well-being, belonging, contribution, communication and exploration.

The concept of Te Whāriki takes a different approach to the traditional developmental curriculum map of: physical, intellectual, emotional and social (PIES) skills, which dominates Western curriculum models.

Te Whāriki is grounded in socio-cultural theory (Rogoff, 1990, Vygotsky, 1978) that places the learning experiences of children in a broader social and cultural context. Reciprocal relationships and interactions are of central importance with children actively co-constructing their own knowledge and understandings in everyday social and cultural settings (Smith 2011).

  • They measure learning differently

It is typical in the US to drill children with information and have them complete assignments regularly. This often results in the memorization of facts which may or may not be retained over a lifetime. 

The New Zealand system utilizes photos, 'Learning Stories' and work samples to show parents, teachers, and administrators how they are progressing. Learning Stories allow teachers to document early learning through narratives, describing what children can do and what they are learning. 

They represent learning as a dynamic, ongoing process. They do not reduce learning to a score, or a level that defines them as they start a new school year, with a new teacher. Learning Stories do not highlight deficiencies, weaknesses, or mistakes. They recognize that each child is a unique individual who interacts with the world around her and learns differently, through a process that is uniquely her own. 

  • Cost and Accessibility

In New Zealand, the first 20 hours per week is government funded and largely free for children from the age of three until they start school (after the age of five.) The program, known as 20 ECE hours, applies to all children in New Zealand, regardless of their visa situations. Providing this equal opportunity for all children is a huge benefit for these families and levels the playing field at the very beginning of education. 

Ninety-eight percent of three and four year olds in New Zealand formally attend an early childhood service; at aged one year there are 20 percent of children attending, although many more participate in informal playgroup settings.

In the U.S., only 57% of children formally attend preschool. For a non mandated program, preschool can be a huge cost for some families in the United States. Some families are forced to choose schools that offer less desirable programs for their children, while other families are priced out of the preschool experience altogether. 

  • Parent Involvement

It is commonplace in the United States for parents to drop their children off at the preschool door and hustle off to their busy schedules. It is nothing for these children to spend an entire day at preschool, five times a week. Easy enough, parents know they have some place safe where their children are watched and hopefully taught a thing or two. Granted, there are plenty of parents that volunteer to read the occasional book or watch over recess, but it is generally safe to say, parent involvement in the early childhood education system in the US is limited.

New Zealand, on the other hand, encourages parent involvement So much, in fact, they introduced the Playcentre in 1941. The motto of the Playcentre, "Families growing together" really embraces their philosophy of learning. These centers are not only parent organized, meaning the parents are responsible to set up and run the centers, they are, most importantly, responsible for the education the children will receive.

These parents serve as the teachers as well. The organization believes that the children respond best to the their parents and well trusted members of their community. Another interesting aspect that is practiced in the New Zealand Playcentres is the child to adult ratio. In the United States it is considered a premium preschool to see a 1 to 10 adult to child ratio. The New Zealand Playcentres limit this ratio to 1 to 5, ensuring that the children will receive plenty of attention and guidance. The centers also set the limit to a maximum of 5 half days a week for the children.

Full day school five times a week is simply not available under this system.

  • They Practice unstructured learning

"Children need opportunities to be creative and imaginative in order to learn how to problem-solve. It’s then, that they become divergent thinkers; they’re able to think about many different scenarios, and they’re able to come up with many different solutions to just one problem. Think of our future scientists in the world, they’re the people who are problem-solvers, they’re the people who push the boundaries and provoke people’s thinking and challenge people’s ideas, and we need people like that.”
- Christine Alford, New Zealand kindergarten teacher. 

Children love to play! This is somehow an innate quality we are all born with, and most children play before they can walk or talk. 

Should preschool children be expected to sit, listen, and learn when this structure doesn't appear to be effective or even natural for children?  Share your views in the comments.

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