An Analysis of New Zealand's Changing History, Policies and Approaches to Early Childhood Education

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As in many countries, early childhood education as a formal construct is relatively recent in New Zealand, although there has been formal and informal provision for children younger than school age for around 120 years. This paper will briefly explain bow the New Zealand conception of 'early childhood education' developed and how it has been adopted by government and formalised via regulatory and financial systems. The paper will conclude with some speculation on the directions the National Government which came to power in 2008 is taking, along with recommendations based on the lessons learned in New Zealand.

A brief history of early childhood education in New Zealand

Early childhood education had its birth in New Zealand in 1889 in Dunedin, in the South Island, when the first kindergarten was established to cater for the children of the poor who were left to play on the street while their parents worked (Hughes, 1989). The initiative was based on Christian and philanthropic motivations by middle-class members of the Dunedin community. The first childcare centre was established by the Catholic Church in the capital city, Wellington, in 1908, again based on Christian motivations of caring for children of the poor whose mothers were working (Cook, 1985). For the first part of the twentieth century, kindergartens developed across the country, as they did in many Western nations, based on the philosophies of German philosopher Friedrich Froebel and notions of children learning through play in a natural environment and through involvement with educational materials he called 'gifts'. Child care developed in a more ad hoc way with some established centres and a great deal of 'backyard' care or 'baby farming', where mothers took in other people's children during the day (Cook, 1985; May, 1997).

The first Labour government in New Zealand in 1935 brought about sweeping changes in education in all sectors, making secondary school compulsory for all children and promoting progressive notions of education. These were based on Dewey's theories, of young children learning through active participation with real experiences such as blocks, carpentry and water play With the support of the then minister of education, Peter Fraser, and the visionary director general of education, Clarence Beeby, English educationalist Susan Isaacs was invited to New Zealand in 1937 to talk about the psychoanalytic notions of child development trialled in British nursery schools, such as the Malting House nursery. Such trials were based on Freudian theories of the 'natural child' and the importance of children's 'free play' in building healthy psychological development. With encouragement from government, the first nursery play centres were established in New Zealand, run initially by middle-class parent cooperatives throughout New Zealand, but also being adopted by working-class families (Stover, 2011).

Under the leadership of Beeby, ideas for post-war education were circulated in a publication in 1944 entitled Education for today and tomorrow (Mason, 1944, in Stover, 2011). This document posed challenging questions about 'preschool education', including the need for all-day nursery schools, collaboration between services, and teacher education. The appointment of a first-ever supervisor of pre-school services in 1946 signalled a change in kindergarten practices, whereby teachers were encouraged to let children 'be free' by giving them choices, to minimise routines, and to encourage 'free play' (May, 1997). Understandings of free play were published in a number of influential playcentre publications, which were used by the kindergarten training colleges for helping student teachers to understand how to promote 'free play' (Stover, 2011). In her analysis of the history of the role of play in New Zealand, Stover (2011) argues that 'free play' was in its heyday across the diverse services for young children from the 1950s to 1980s, although not always well-understood or accepted by families and the wider education community; and other services with distinctly different philosophies emerged during this time. …