How to find the right ECE centre for your child

To find an ECE centre in your area:

  • contact your local Ministry of Education office

  • visit centres in your area

  • talk to other parents, family/whanau and neighbours

  • look in the Yellow Pages under “Child Care and Education”

  • talk to your doctor or Plunket nurse.

You can also do a search of ECE centres in your region

Highlights

Once you decide that your child is ready for early childhood centre, you need to find a good programme. Start your search early. Some families — we kid you not — apply to the best centres when their child is born, especially in big cities. After you've identified two or three promising centres, apply to all of them. That way, if you don't get into your first choice, you'll have a backup or two. To find the best programme for your child, follow the six steps below.

Identify your priorities.

First, decide what you want. Are you looking for a early childhood centre near your workplace, or would one closer to home be more convenient? Do you want the curriculum to include activities such as dancing and storytelling? Are you looking for a specific approach to learning?  Write everything down so you have a list to refer to as you size up potential programmes.

Do your research

  • Ask around to find the most reputable early childhood centres. Friends and family can give you the names of centres they've liked, and we all know that personal references are the best kind.

  • Ask some experts. The ECC or the Ministry of Education can put you in touch with a local, licensed early childhood centre in your area.  While licensing isn't a guarantee that a particular early childhood centre will be right for your child, in general, it is a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Education.

  • Go online. Both ECC and the Ministry of Education have Web sites as well; visit them for guidelines and contact information. The ECC also has a searchable on-line database of licensed centres and early childhood centres.

  • Turn to the phone book, but keep in mind it's a limited resource. Your Yellow Pages should have a list of early childhood centres in your area, but this is just a starting point.

Visit and interview

Once you have decided which ECE centre you are interested in arrange a visit so you can ask all the questions you need to and get a feel for the centre. If you like the centre you may want to arrange more than one visit with your child.

During your visits, look for the following:

Children:

  • Are they interacting with each other and are the teachers interacting with children?

  • Are they free to choose from a selection of play equipment that suits their interests and abilities?

  • Can they move freely between indoors and outdoors?

  • Do they seem happy and are they taking part in activities?

Teachers:

  • Are they providing a warm, encouraging and supportive environment?

  • Do they seem to enjoy their work and work well together?

  • Are they ensuring the children are well-supervised at all times?

  • Do they make you and your child feel welcome?

  • Are they engaging with children in their learning?

 The environment:

  • Is it designed to provide a range of spaces to support a variety of experiences, such as wet and messy play, quiet play, active play and creative play?

  • Does it provide equipment that is in a safe condition and is easy for the children to access?

  • Does it lead itself to a range of experiences and opportunities that interest, engage and challenge children?

  • Is it clean and well-maintained?

You can ask a few preliminary questions over the phone (to find out fees, for example), but you won't get a sense of what an early childhood centre is really like until you go there and meet the staff and director. Ask the director about everything from hours, fees, and vacation schedules to philosophies on child-rearing issues such as discipline and nutrition. Also, get a schedule of daily activities. Pay attention to your gut feelings about the place and how the director handles your questions. Take our helpful printable early childhood centre interview sheet along on your visits.

When you visit the classrooms, check the teacher-child ratios (quality is possible with ratios of 1:5 for under 2’s and 1:10 in over 2”s in specific centres as indicated by the peer review organisation ERO.  However some experts advocate a lower ratio of 1:4 or less for under two-year-olds; 1:5 for 2- to 3-year-olds, 1:7 for 3- to 4-year-olds, and 1:15 for 5-year-olds), and note how many children are in a classroom. "It's easier to give one-on-one attention and be responsive when there are fewer children in a room," says Peter Reynolds, CEO of the Early Childhood Council. Observe how the teachers interact with the children; make sure they're friendly, caring, and encouraging.

You'll want a regular, challenging curriculum; a warm, clean, safe environment; and experienced teachers who are paid well and happy with their jobs. Ask about staff turnover. If the teachers change every six months, move on. Children crave consistency and need to form strong relationships with their caregivers, so you don't want an early childhood centre where teachers come and go.

Ultimately, choosing a early childhood centre is a personal decision. If, after visiting a early childhood centre, you love the idea of having your child there, it's probably the right place for you. "The early childhood centre we chose was strong in arts and music, and the location was convenient," says Winn Ellis, a mother of two girls from Christchurch. "But what really sold us was the cheerful atmosphere. The kids seem genuinely happy to be there."

Check references.

Positive word-of-mouth is a powerful endorsement. If a certain early childhood centre has a buzz, ask parents why they're raving about it. Ask each centre you're considering for a list of parents whose children have attended the centre. Call them, and ask specific questions. Don't just ask whether they like the early childhood centre; ask what exactly they like about it and what they don't. If their child is no longer there, ask why. You may also want to call the Ministry of Education to see whether any complaints have been filed against the centre or its teachers.

Test it

Visit the centre with your child. You'll want to see how he and the teachers interact and whether he/she seems comfortable in the early childhood centre's environment. Do the teachers seem interested in getting to know your child? Does he/she enjoy the activities? "I knew we'd made the right decision based on my daughter's reaction," says Svetlana Robledo, a Hamilton mother of two. "Nina was brimming with joy after one day there and couldn't stop talking about all the things she was learning and doing."

Get on the waiting list

If the early childhood centre of your dreams has no openings, don't despair. Put yourself on the waiting list, and, while you're at it, write a letter spelling out why you like the centre so much. It won't guarantee you a place, but it can't hurt to let the centre know how enthusiastic you are about the programme. In the meantime, if you've applied to more than one centre, you'll likely have other options to consider.

Quality in ECE centres

Every licensed ECE centre is regularly reviewed by the Education Review Office (ERO). Before deciding on a particular ECE centre you may want to read their latest ERO report to get a better understanding of the centre. ERO reports are freely available online at: www.ero.govt.nz

Things to look for - Checklist

When looking at different ECE centres in your area, here are some things to think about:

  • What type of service would suit you and your family best?

  • What ages does the service cater for? Some ECE services cater specifically for babies over six months old or children over two years old.

  • What do you and your child require from a service?

  • How much do you want to spend on fees?

  • Do you want a qualified teacher to be involved in your child’s care and education?

  • Would you like to attend/participate with your child?

  • How involved do you want to be with the day to day running of the service?

  • How many hours do you want your child to attend each week?

  • Does the service have a waiting list?

  • What hours is it open? Is it open during school holidays?

  • How close is it to your home or work?

  • What do others say about the service?

  • Do you want your child to have the best start for primary school when they are ready?