It’s 10.25 am in a bright, clean new purpose-built childcare centre and two-year-old Sophie is standing at the gate, crying “mummy, mummy” over and over again. There’s no-one available to respond to her, because one teacher is already carrying around a four-month-old baby that hasn’t stopped crying since it arrived, others are changing nappies, clearing up after morning tea and trying to stop Toby and Lucas fighting over the yellow digger. The general expectation anyway is that Sophie will settle down eventually and get used to being here. There are books, puzzles and mountains of plastic toys strewn all over the floor and the noise level is unbelievable. Welcome to the world of infants and toddlers daycare.
by Penny Hutton
All-day fee-paying childcare began to take off in the 1980s, due to a shift in family dynamics, especially in the role of women. Since then, Early Childhood Education (ECE) centres have increasingly become profit-making businesses, with the under-two age group now being the fastest-growing sector.
It’s 11:40 in the same centre. Toby and Lucas have assembled a wooden railway track and are happily absorbed in playing trains together. But this can’t last long – it’s time to tidy up and wash hands for lunch. Many of the children would also be happy to spend lots of time sloshing around with the water in the washbasin, but they have to be hurried along; with 30 children involved, the timetable always takes precedence. The children seldom get to do anything at their own pace, undisturbed.
Due to the adult-child ratio required, children seldom go on outings, like walks, going to the park or the beach. Centres have outside play areas, but they are often small and cannot be used if wet or muddy in winter. The children become accustomed to staying indoors, confined with only their own age group, from very young. The age-group institutionalisation then continues throughout primary and secondary school (and, incidentally, on to the retirement villages and rest homes where many people now spend their old age).
1:00 pm in the staff lunchroom. One teacher says she would love to have just one day with no crying, while another who is now working in the three to four-year-old-section says she would never go back to the stress of working with under-twos. In no other area of teaching are the staff expected to put in 40 contact hours per week – in primary or secondary schools, the absolute maximum is 25. A majority of ECE staff have completed a three-year degree course, and the government’s aim is for 80% of staff to be qualified and registered by 2012.
However, Amala Shanti, who is currently studying for a Bachelor of Education (Teaching) Early Years, feels that the teacher training is lacking in many important respects. She says that no attention is given to guiding the growth of the child’s whole being: spiritual and emotional, as well as mental and physical; nor to valuing and awakening children’s natural inclinations and potentials, and keeping alive their innate sense of wonder and connectedness to all life.
Amala Shanti also points out that although Te Whaariki, the national early childhood curriculum, does include the goals of valuing and empowering a child, and nurturing a sense of belonging and holistic wellbeing, with considerable input from family and whanau, this is often not really put into practice, but simply adopted as a token gesture.
But it is obvious that it is virtually impossible for the staff, however well-trained and well-meaning, to really care for and respond adequately to such a large group of very young children. In my experience in a centre with about 30 infants and toddlers, the teachers are kept busy changing nappies, preparing bottles, doing laundry, supervising mealtimes and sleep times and filling out forms that document every detail of these activities. There is growing resentment among staff, who feel there is too much expectation of spending time dedicated to routines and documentation, leaving only a small amount of quality time to spend with the children. If I were a parent of one of these children, I would far prefer the teachers to dedicate themselves primarily to showing the same affection and quality of love that I as a parent gave them.
Of course these centres exist mainly to cater for those very parents – mostly mothers – who are returning to the paid workforce, though this is often as a result of social expectations and economic pressures, rather than their own preference. The issue of daycare for the very young raises so many questions. Why have children at all, only to hand them over to the care of strangers? Why do we value children so little in our society, to the point of regarding them as an inconvenience to adult life? Why are parents, mothers in particular, also so undervalued and poorly supported? Their influence and responsibility is enormous but because what they do, and it is a 24/7 job, is unpaid, they don’t really count in today’s money-driven world, in spite of all the political preaching about the importance of family values.
For under-twos, there are no real benefits to being in daycare. It simply allows families to have a higher income. A report released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in March 2011 recommended that the government give more support to paid parental leave than childcare subsidies for this age group. The authors also recommended that at the very least, staff-child ratios be changed from the current minimum of 1:5 to 1:3, and that group sizes should be limited to no more than eight infants. But in July 2011 the regulations were actually changed to allow centres to be even bigger, with 150 now being the maximum number of children in any one centre, of whom 50 can be aged under two. The report also advised that noise levels should be reduced, and several other studies have been done on noise in ECE centres, which can reach levels that are actually damaging to the hearing of children and teachers alike.
Finally it’s 5:15 pm and the staff are trying to fulfill their cleaning obligations – toys must be wiped down and disinfected, puzzles put away, chairs stacked, while the remaining children, some of whom have been at the centre for over eight hours, are exhausted and desperately impatient for a parent to arrive. The very existence of ECEs, especially for under-twos, is an issue that reflects the current state of our humanity. What this situation shows is our inability to cooperate with each other at a level that acknowledges that we cannot do one single thing without profoundly affecting the life of another. We have created economic institutions rather than Human Communities and it is a sad fact that children suffer the most from this.
If we are to find solutions to this growing cultural dysfunction then somehow our basic values will have to incorporate the feeling of unity in our humanness, rather than mere individual self-serving motives. Then, perhaps we will be moved to reassess our whole way of living, and not only “for the sake of the children”; this Love and respect must be felt for the rights of every Human Being and every sentient creature, before true change can happen. The question is: how far do your feelings of Love extend?
– “Through their lens” An inquiry into non-parental education and care of infants and toddlers.” Dr Janis Carroll-Lind Dr John Angus. Office of the Children’s Commissioner. www.occ.org.nz/publications