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 2.5 square metres per child inside and five square metres per child outside. The minimum in the US is 3.5 to 4.2 square metres per child, with a preference for five square metres 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 and not up to 50 hours a week as they do today, the outside space was 75 square feet per child, or 6.9 square metres. This is now five square metres, half the US recommendation of 10 square metres 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 naps. On a wet day all the 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, 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?

• Susan Bates is an early childhood teacher and lives in Auckland.

Source: NZ Herald


  1. Dear Editor
    The Early Childhood Council (ECC) disagrees with opinions published on the New Zealand Herald website about space allocation in early childhood centres (‘Susan Bates: Our kids are not getting enough space in childcare’, 25 July 2017).

    Reading between the lines, we wonder whether the author is in fact pushing for regulated group size, something that not all early childhood education (ECE) providers agree with.

    Centre-based ECE services are known by many different names and have different operating structures, philosophies and affiliations. This gives parent’s choice.

    Comments made by Susan Bates about ‘packing children in’ to ‘receive more funding and fees’ are simply misleading and must be read as a misguided opinion.

    The Education Act and the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008 set the standards licensed services must meet, including maximum number of children per staff member, according to age bands. These regulations are based on a mix of local and international research and judgment

    The Government does not currently limit the size of different age groups within early childhood centres, but centres do tend to maintain group size, in accordance with good practice and available research.

    Group size is defined as the number of children attending a childhood centre at a particular time. Whereas licence size is the total of the number of children a centre can legally have on the premises at any one time. To put the distinction in another way, a centre might have three rooms: one for 2 to 3 year-olds; one for 3 to 4 year-olds; and one for 4 and 5 year-olds. Within these rooms children will work and play in smaller groups of varying sizes depending upon the activity they are engaged in at the time and the philosophy or special character of the centre. License size is all of the children, in all of the rooms that are legally able to attend the centre at any one time.

    There is little evidence reflecting the New Zealand context that regulating group size is the appropriate way to go. Even the Ministry of Education is reluctant to go there. We also want to say not all children attend ECE every day or for full days as insinuated in Bates’ opinion piece.

    Bates also refers to changes in 2008 to regulations around space allocation in ECE, however those changes did not reduce space as she claims, but in fact updated regulations to remove some layers of bureaucracy the sector faces. Up until that point, if a centre had more than 50 children, they had to have more than one license. This lead to duplicate reporting, ERO reviews, and expense.

    We would be the first to agree that not all services are perfect or offer a perfect environment. There will always be some for whom improvement is required. This is why we have the Education Review Office (ERO). We actively encourage parents to explore the ERO reports for the centres they are considering and most importantly to visit and make informed choices. This is a far more accurate indicator of whether a child is going to be safe, happy and flourish in their childcare centre than trying to make sense of ill-informed opinion pieces and scare-mongering.

    The ECC represents members of more than 1,000 licenced early childhood providers and advocates in behalf of the early childhood education sector.

    Peter Reynolds
    Chief Executive Officer
    Early Childhood Council

  2. Thank you for your comments, Peter – it is great to have your perspective on this very important issue. We would love to hear from ECE providers and teachers (and parents!) on the issue of group size. Do you feel your children have enough room to move? Would you like to see group size regulated in ECE?
    – Editor, Education Central

  3. Mr Reynolds may be an expert in the requirements for business of space and groups, but the research for children is clear. For the best health, physical and mental, for language, socio-emotional and cognitive development, for reciprical responsive relationships, children need space, small groups and calm, competent teachers and carers.

  4. I need to strongly support Susan Bates’ statements about lack of adequate space allocation in early childhood centres, and comments about observed conditions in childcare in New Zealand. I absolutely refute your suggestion that this is either ill informed or scare-mongering. I’m aware that it is a very well informed set of observations from a teacher with experience of many ECE centres. My own view is based on some 1500 visits to about 600 ECE centres, so perhaps well informed as well? ERO reports are unavoidably limited by the circumstances of planned regulatory visits, making observation of continuous day-to-day reality impossible for an ERO assessor. Which would you honestly place greater weight on – the observations of a teacher who has worked at a centre, or an ERO report? Stressed, exhausted centre managers and staff will still be under pressure to give a good representation to ERO.

    It’s easy to find positive experiences to contrast with Susan Bates’ comments. I have seen some absolutely beautiful spaces and met with many wonderful, dedicated people, both teachers and centre managers. But I have also found some of those wonderful people to be exhausted and stressed, working in badly designed, overcrowded, noise environments. These conditions are not the exception in full day childcare, they are common. While involved in licensing of ECE centres (for about 13 years during 1992 – 2009) I met really good people operating in children’s interests, and others who were clearly intent on reducing children’s space to an absolute minimum for maximum occupancy. That wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have among the worst space per child allocations in the OECD.

    There is little doubt that group size is an important factor in quality. It has complexities, but that’s not an excuse for ignoring the issue or for having large numbers in one group. Group size is especially important in that most crucial element of human development in the early years – relationships. I need to point out too that these crowded and stressed environments are home for many, many children for 40-52.5 hours per week – most of their weekday waking hours. That’s inevitable when providing full-day childcare for full-time working parents.

    While working for Wellington Regional Public Health I was part of a team that actively advised centre developers to exceed the MOE minimum space standards in the interests of children’s health, because of concerns over what we were observing. The minimum indoor standard is equivalent to 30 children and about 4-6 adults living in a modest 3 bedroom house of about 110-120m2 (75m2+10% play space). The minimum outdoor area for 30 children is 150m2, or about one fifth of a typical back yard for a 1/4 acre section. This kind of outdoor space isn’t generous for a family, let alone being justified as an early childhood education environment. Peter I have some questions for you. Are you prepared to say that the MOE minimum space allocation is reasonable? Can it be justified on the basis of either of children’s wellbeing or of their education? If not, can commercial viability alone be a justification? If not, then what would you say is reasonable, and why? These questions are also for anyone else who would like to reply.

  5. Mr Reynolds makes an assumption “we wonder whether the author is in fact pushing for regulated group size,” and then proceeds to present a classic exercise in obfuscation in the defence of ECE businesses to maximise profits.

    As an ECE teacher with many years experience in many centres, I agree with Ms Bates. There is not enough space allocated to children in New Zealand. This is not about regulating group sizes or fiddling with licenses. Children are packed in to make money – and that’s the reality of education in this country where quantity is valued higher than quality.

  6. Great questions Mike Bedford, I would love to hear the answers Mr Reynolds. I have worked in the EC sector for many years and totally agree with Susan Bates and it is getting more and more stressful for both children and teachers. Maybe Worksafe could decide what is a good ratio to workspace is for the well-being of all on the coalface.

  7. We do acknowledge the current space requirements set by the Ministry of Education reflect research-based evidence. We are also aware that some centres operate with increased space available for children and that this can vary depending on age. We do not support any ECE service that operates below the required minimum space settings established by the Ministry of Education.

    The Ministry defines early childhood education as combining the elements of education and care. Therefore it is our understanding that both factors of wellbeing and education are being met.

    Contrary to the views of some, all early childhood education services in New Zealand are private. That is to say, there is no public ECE system in New Zealand. As such, all services have a responsibility to operate in a commercially viable manner and provide quality education and care services.

  8. Susan Bates is speaking for children and teachers in this article. It is a piece that when all is said and done, asks us as teachers, policy makers and members of society to do better for children, for those that can’t speak for themselves.
    As shown by Susan, teachers working on the coal face are seeing and feeling the negative impacts on children, the result of untested and poorly implemented regulations. These regulations are researched perhaps, but the early childhood environment in Aotearoa is changing at such a huge pace that any projected outcomes could be called into question. You only have to look around your own community to see the change in action. New centres opening at an unprecedented rate, traditional services like Playcentre closing their doors and kindergarten compromising on core values to stay viable in a commercial environment.
    Some ECE centres provide incredible environments to grow up in (and when children are in care five days a week, all day long, growing up in care is a reality) but many are well below par ( our Education Revue system shows proportionately fewer extremely high quality environments, and an astoundingly large amount of mediocre ones).
    If Susan’s article is a plea for help, a call for us all to open our eyes to what is happening in some ece environments, a call for justice for children, why is no one listening and responding?
    Perhaps the answer lies in the statement made by Peter Reynolds. Education and care of children has become a commercial responsibility. How did we allow this to happen, children becoming dollar signs, commodities, profit incentives. More importantly now, for the sake of our children, our futures, what are we going to do to make it right.

  9. I need to challenge the assertion that the current space allocation is research-based. What research? All of the research I have read points to much better space for children as a minimum, let alone desirable. If you can find any research, any at all, to support MOE minimum standards for minimum space please show us. I need to ask also, what logic is there in the statement “The Ministry defines early childhood education as combining the elements of education and care. Therefore it is our understanding that both factors of wellbeing and education are being met”. Simply defining a term does not imply either a good standard or compliance. We have serious problems and they deserve a better response than this.

  10. Thank you Susan Bates and Mike Bedford a for well thought out discussion based on research and experience about space, group size and stress for both children and staff. From the perspective of the child I think both available space (to move, play and also have the possibility of a quiet area) and group size are core issues for well-being. Research with animals has demonstrated that various species can only recognize a limited number of other members in a group, I can’t quote the exact figures but let’s guess chickens can recognize say 10 other individuals and maybe cows can recognize 20. In knowing other group members they can have stable relationships and feel secure within a limited group. Well I am pretty sure toddlers and young children are the same, depending on their age they will gradually increase the number of people they can identify (and feel comfortable with) in a group as they get older. Can a toddler recognize 10 other toddlers? How about 20? Do you think a 2 year old can recognize 30 other 2 year olds? When a young child is surrounded by people they don’t know day after day (I call this the railway station effect) how are their stress levels, what sort of relationships can they build with strangers, how secure do they feel. It’s about relationships and anyone who knows anything about young children and cares about the quality of the environment (both physical and people) would not try to justify stuffing big groups of little children in together for 8-9 hours.


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