Part two: How do I choose?

With such a variety of services to choose from, how do you decide which is best for you and your child? This section gives you advice on what to look for in a service and how to tell whether it provides high quality care and education.

Making a start

Choices in early childhood education.  

When you choose an early childhood education service you need to think about a number of things:

  • do I need a service that is close to home or close to work?
  • is it open for the hours that suit me?
  • is my child the right age for the service?
  • is it a service I can afford?
  • do I like the service?
  • does my child like the service?
  • do they have an opening for my child?
  • what involvement will be expected of me?
  • do I want a service where I can stay with my child?

It is best if you look around for a service before you actually need one. Sometimes there are waiting lists and it can take a while for your child to settle in.

Finding a place

To find a good early childhood education service it pays to do a bit of research.

Your local newspaper, council or community boards may have information.

Ask others about services they would recommend.

Try talking to:

  • other parents or neighbours
  • early childhood education organisations (you can look up their websites – see
  • Citizens Advice Bureaux
  • your Plunket nurse or doctor
  • the Ministry of Education.

Next steps

Phone the services you are interested in to find out:

  • where it is
  • what hours it is open
  • if they are teacher-led or parent-led
  • if you are able to leave your child
  • if they have any age restrictions (eg do they take babies?)
  • if they have a particular way of teaching (eg Montessori, language immersion, etc)
  • how much it costs
  • do they use Government funding?
  • if there is a waiting list.


You will get a better idea of whether a service is right for you and your child if you visit. Phone the service and ask to come and see the service or, if it’s a home-based service, to meet with the coordinator. It’s best to set a time when children are at the service. Ask for time with the person in charge so they can answer any questions you may have.

What do I look for in an early childhood education service?

When you visit the service, there are a number of things you should look for that will tell you more about whether the service provides high quality care and education. Take your child with you when you go and watch closely what’s going on in the service and how your child reacts. Pick a spot where you can spend some time to see what’s going on. While your child might not be ready to leave your side, they should feel comfortable there.

The feel of the service

You should be able to get a feel for whether the service is a happy place.

Are the children happy? Look at their faces. Are they laughing? Are they busy?

Is the place well cared for? Is the service keen to have visitors? Are they happy for parents, whānau and caregivers to take part in service activities?

Inside the service

Even if your child will attend a service for just a few hours you need to be sure they have plenty to do and that they are safe.

Questions to ask when choosing a service...

Ask about anything you want to know. If it is a licensed centre, the licence certificate should be displayed in the centre, and it will give you some details about the service. Many services will have an information sheet they can give you. If not, you might want to ask some of the following questions.

...about how the service is run:

  • who owns and operates the service?
  • how many children are enrolled?
  • is there a waiting list to get in?
  • what qualifications do the teachers have?
  • who are the relieving teachers?
  • are teachers regularly updating their knowledge and practice?
  • am I welcome to be involved in my child’s learning?
  • what sort of activities does the service use to encourage learning?
  • does the service separate under-twos from older children?
  • how are the needs of different children met?
  • how big are the groups?
  • how do they help children settle in?
  • how do teachers guide children’s behaviour?
  • what is the daily routine?
  • can children sleep when they want or at set times only?
  • what happens if your child gets ill or has an accident?
  • who can collect your child?
  • how will you know how your child is getting on?
  • what are the service’s expectations of you?
  • can you help decide how the service is run?
  • can you have a copy of the service’s policies?
  • can you see the Education Review Office reports?

...about costs

  • what are the costs?
  • how do you pay?
  • are the costs lower if two or more of your children attend?
  • do you have to pay for public holidays or if children are sick or on holiday?
  • does the service use Government funding?
  • if the services uses the Government funding, will there be any optional charges or donations?
  • are you able to apply for childcare subsidies from Ministry of Social Development?

…about food

  • do they provide snacks and lunch, or do you have to provide them?
  • if they provide food, what sort of food do they have (ask to see a menu to check it includes foods your child eats)? Do you have to pay extra?
  • do they cater for special food requirements?
  • what are the times for snacks and meals?
  • can children serve themselves or can they choose themselves how much they eat

Indoor areas

  • Is the equipment in good condition? Is there enough equipment?
  • Is equipment well displayed? Are children free to choose from a range of toys and equipment?
  • re the rooms pleasant and colourful?
  • Is the place clean, with good heating, lighting and airflow?
  • Is there a wet or messy play area, a quiet space for books, stories, puppets and music, a creative area, a physical play area?
  • Are there display areas, such as a science table, that have things to touch and explore?
  • Is there a generous block play area with cars, animals and toy people?
  • Is there a fantasy play or dress-up area?
  • Are there tables and chairs for children to work at? Can they also work on the floor?
  • Is the place safe? Are the playing areas safe? Can children be easily seen in the bathroom?
  • Does the service practise good hygiene to lessen the spread of bugs and illness?
  • Where can children rest or sleep if they need to?

Differences for under-twos

Babies and toddlers have different play needs:

  • is there a soft carpeted area for them to crawl and explore?
  • is there a raised area for them to practise crawling up?
  • are there balls and containers, scales and other objects for children to manipulate, put in and out of containers?
  • is there messy play? How do teachers manage this?
  • are there cushions to sit or lie on; safe, firm surfaces to climb on?
  • are there trolleys to push and wheelies to pull?
  • can you see toys and mobiles strung across for children to reach out to and touch?
  • are there places for adults to sit on the floor?
  • are there peaceful places?

Outside the service

Outdoor play teaches children different things from indoor activities. Services manage indoor and outdoor play differently. Some mixed age services have separate play areas for under-twos.

Others, such as playgroups, are not required to have an outside play area. If outdoor space is not available, playgroups must provide alternative arrangements for children to have physically active play.

Outdoor areas

  • Can children move freely between inside and outdoors?
  • Is the area safe, well maintained and inviting?
  • Are there places for running, climbing, swinging, lifting and digging?
  • Are there sand and water play areas? Can children do carpentry?
  • Are there plenty of grassy areas?
  • Can children create their own play spaces with materials such as boxes, ladders and planks?
  • Is there a safe soft-fall surface under climbing equipment?
  • Are there areas where children can use their imagination to play at building caves, huts and boats?
  • Do teachers join in and help find whatever is needed for play?
  • Are the children being supervised at all times?
  • Is there a quiet area to sit or to ‘hide’?
  • Are there animals? Are they well controlled and looked after?

Staff in the service

For your child to get the most out of their early childhood experience they need to be with people who can guide and support their learning at a level that’s right for them.

When you can’t be with your child, qualified and experienced teachers know how to help children progress towards their goals and can improve the skills of children of all ages. Younger children need to be cared for by teachers who know how infants develop and how to meet their special needs.

The method of teaching, the number of teachers and their qualifications will be different depending on the kind of service you choose. But there are some things that are common to good practice, whatever the service type.

Children do best where they can form bonds with people who care, have plenty of time for them, enjoy having fun and who give clear guidelines that can be backed up with reasons. Younger children especially, need time to build these bonds so teachers need to work both with individual children and the group.

A service where only one or two key teachers work with and care for your child each day will offer your child the most secure learning environment.

Teachers and staff

  • Are the teachers warm and helpful? Are the children comfortable with them?
  • Are children easily able to approach them eg for a story or to ask questions?
  • Are the children listened to with respect?
  • Do the teachers get down to the children’s eye level to speak to them?
  • Is there lots of laughter?
  • Do children respond well to directions?
  • What does the licence say about the numbers of teachers required to supervise the children?
  • Do the teachers enjoy their work and work well together?
  • Do the teachers know individual children and respond to their particular needs?
  • Do the teachers recognise each child’s culture while treating them all equally with warmth and respect?
  • Are children encouraged to be as independent as they can be; to choose their own activities?
  • Are the teachers professional when guiding children’s behaviour – do they teach them to change how they behave rather than punish them?
  • Do the teachers encourage the children to be happy and involved in play and to be cooperative and pleasant with others?
  • Do any of the teachers speak languages other than English?

Do the numbers add up?

Children do best when they get individual attention from adults. A high number of teachers to children is good for:

  • making sure activities suit each child’s needs
  • helping children bond more strongly with their teachers
  • helping children get along with each other better.

A good quality early childhood education service will have enough teachers so that good relationships can develop between the teachers and the children. This is especially important for infants and toddlers. They need more adult attention because they rely on adults more to play and talk with them.

Licensed services will have listed on their licence the minimum number of adults that must be with the children at all times. Many services will have more teachers than this number. You should see the license on display in the centre.

What are the children doing?

A quality early childhood education service will have a planned programme that both cares for and educates your child. In New Zealand, Te Whāriki, the early childhood curriculum, sets out the learning experience goals for children up to school age. It identifies what a child needs to know and use later in life.

Spotting a good programme

A good learning programme will:

  • have a clear written statement of how the service will educate and care for children (this needs to be based on the curriculum)
  • keep a record of each child’s learning and development
  • set new programmes to extend the child based on these records
  • set realistic short term goals that parents and teachers would like the child to achieve based on their needs and interests
  • involve teacher discussion
  • involve teacher and parent discussion
  • be changed as needed.

The type of service you choose may place more focus on some learning elements rather than others and carry out the learning programme in different ways. It’s important you choose a service that offers a programme that will suit your child and how you want them to grow and develop.

What is happening for the children?
  • Are children keen to learn, to try new things, to have a go and persevere?
  • Are they learning a wide range of skills? Are there play materials that encourage their intellectual, social, emotional and physical learning?
  • Is there lots of room for active play?
  • Can the children play with their friends and the toys they like?
  • Are children playing together?
  • Do children have time to explore and discover; time to get on with their own play? Do adults come to help?
  • Are there quiet times and rest times?
  • Do the children get on with each other easily and positively?
  • Are the children allowed to express their feelings? Do adults help before feelings get out of hand?
  • How do teachers respond to upsets, especially those caused by other children? Would you want your child handled that way?
  • Are there some routines – meal times, sleep, going home?
  • What do they involve? Do children have to wait for long times? It’s unlikely you’ll see all these things in one visit, so it’s important to visit more than once.
Size counts
Many children are more comfortable and can learn more in small groups. They get on better with others and can express themselves better, which helps them feel good about themselves. In small groups teachers can more easily treat children as individuals. Often there’s greater cooperation between adult and child.

Are parents encouraged to take part?

Parents, whānau and caregivers are children’s first teachers and much of a child’s learning will take place in the home. Look for an early childhood education service that encourages your involvement in your child’s learning
and that builds links with you in your child’s development. It may be that you and the service you choose have different cultures, values, customs and beliefs. But you can still agree on the way your child is encouraged to
grow and learn.

In teacher-led services:

  • Do teachers accept and support the values of parents, whānau and caregivers?
  • Are teachers positive towards parents, whānau and caregivers and their children?
  • Do they talk with parents, whānau and caregivers about issues such as what food is eaten and when, how to handle toileting and discipline?
  • Do teachers keep parents, whānau and caregivers fully informed on the running of the service?
  • Do teachers keep parents, whānau and caregivers fully informed about their child’s daily activities and any changes in their health or eating habits?
  • Do they regularly update parents, whānau and caregivers on how their child is developing?
  • Do they encourage parents, whānau and caregivers to make decisions and help run their child’s programme?

In parent -led services:

In these services it is the parents, whänau and caregivers who run the sessions and the learning programmes. You need to find out:

  • what values will be encouraged
  • how the sessions will be run
  • how parents, whänau and caregivers are to be involved
  • how children are to be developed
  • what behaviours are encouraged and discouraged
  • how information is shared
  • what is expected of you.


  • Does the service reflect the values and customs of  its families?
  • Does it provide opportunities for children to learn about other cultures?
  • Is it sensitive to differences in culture and heritage?
  • Is it a comfortable place for people of all cultures?

Content last updated: 18 November 2014