2013 Review Submitted by Warwick Marshall (parent and ECE qualified teacher)
Little Wonders Early Childhood Centre
Address: 130 Rintoul Street, Newtown/Berhampore, Wellington
Maximum licence number of children: 100 children (including 45 under 2-year-olds)
Hours: 7.30am – 6.00pm. Open 52 weeks of the year
Management: One of seven centres located in the North and South Islands of NZ (with more opening). Run by a privately owned company with Auckland-based director Ben Hurst (a former Crusaders and Canterbury rugby half-back).
Today, I took my 2.5yr old child to visit Little Wonders in Newtown which is located right on or next to the old site of the once beloved Athletic Park. Once over the nostalgia of that magnificent stadium I saw the big Little Wonders road sign ahead. Initially, I thought I was turning into the wrong driveway; through an open security gate onto a new looking road leading to a lovely new modern retirement village. I soon realised that sharing this road was the centre and I pulled into a large car park. I thought it great that the centre and retirement village shared the same area and later I learned both services are a joint venture that includes the local Iwi. It seems the relationship between the two services is reciprocal with visits including the children singing carols over there and the retirees visiting the centre showing the children some good gardening techniques.
The grand entrance to the recently opened centre (January 2012) was something to behold, very sophisticated and trendy with glass fencing around the big glass doorways guarded by strong rock pillars, possibly though more Oriental Bay café look than childcare centre, but I liked it. My excitement though was abruptly ended when the entrance door wouldn’t open, to my surprise it was keypad entry only. My child and I stared blankly at the tinted doors while I thought this was going to be a short visit. Eventually a Dad dropping off his children keyed us in. On entry I noticed someone sitting in the reception on the right and staff in an office room on the left but somehow nobody noticed us meandering outside. I hoped I hadn’t caused the Dad to get in trouble for letting us in and immediately I found myself feeling apologetic for our presence. Someone at the reception greeted us both and said they’d find us some help. My child was a bit restless but unfortunately no toys or distractions for him in the foyer, although I did see a lovely mural of whanau photos at low level for visiting families and the children to see.
We were greeted by Sarah, the manager, who looked down and greeted my child. My guilt in being there subsided after being kindly welcomed. Sarah led us to the 2.5 to 4 years room where my child would likely have started. She was quick to point out that it is the child’s development rather than age that determines which room they are in. We cut to the chase and talked fees ($50p/day for 6 hours or $60 full day from 7.30 to 6pm). Based on appearance and aesthetics alone I wasn’t surprised to hear there was a fairly substantial waiting list of 3 to 6 months. Families away for up to 3 weeks in a year could receive a 50% discount on fees but needed to continue payment if child was away sick.
While the building was new and modern this room immediately felt homely, warm and welcoming. The walls were busy and attractively telling us all about the wonderful things the children were creating and learning. Lots of activities were available with some sofas and books providing a relaxing time out area. It was a large rectangular room mostly carpeted but with lino at the eating table and at the arts and crafts table. Both tables were located in good positions towards the doors leading outside. A variety of furniture included the sofas, drama play props and strong/ glossy chairs and tables with a wooden appearance that added to the homely feel. A boy approached Sarah to ask for help getting changed and without hesitation she bent down to help him with some laughs and giggles. We saw a dedicated sleep room and the arts and crafts room which was currently being used for dramatic play and was full of props such as a bed, drawers, etc. Sarah said they frequently swapped spaces around especially to cater for the children’s current interests. I could see through the kitchen to the 4 years old room next door that looked much the same - warm, homely and welcoming. The modern materials helped give a homely appearance, e.g. lino was patterned with attractive looking wooden floorboards.
Now, on to the chickens, yes that is right, we saw four or five chickens freely roaming their little fenced off section living the good life. Also in there were 3 or 4 raised garden beds. It took a bit of convincing my child to leave the chickens but promises of a sandpit with a waterfall at the far end quickly got us moving. On the way we saw some good challenging climbing equipment, a slide and a grass mound. Looking up were masses of plants with their own irrigation system and a wooden path up high had laughing children running along it. The playground floor was mostly bark, concrete path and a grass mound with a couple of shade sails providing just enough protection. All the rooms looked out to the same outdoors area enabling opportunity for mixed aged/sibling interaction but also developmentally appropriate spaces, i.e. toddler room and nursery, were well protected. Large verandas provided good shade enabling the 4 year olds to have their lunch-boxes made from home outside. On other days lunch and rolling morning and afternoon teas are provided by the centre.
We found our way to the sandpit where the waterfall was flowing and flooding the sandpit but a bridge intersecting the sandpit ensured dry sand was always available on the other side. Within seconds, a child was seizing the opportunity to wet and cool her feet and experimenting with the feeling of wet/sandy shoes and socks.
It was great to hear Sarah say that there was no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. I did ask later what the rooms were like on horrible wet days. She repeated the phrase again saying that the children always have a choice to go outside. While I think this is great and noble I think most children are sensible to choose inside over a Wellington squall. I got the sense that in such conditions the rooms would get pretty crowded and noisy with 25 or 30 children. However, the room walls seemed reasonably sound absorbent.
Sarah explained that they didn’t use relievers due to her being available as a teacher when required thus meaning they would always keep under ratio limits. Her response when I asked what would happen if many teachers caught a bug was that it simply hasn’t happened and they haven’t needed a reliever. I would have felt more assured if they had a continuity plan in place. The 2.5 to 4 year old room’s ratio was 1-8 or 1-9 thus 3 teachers for 25 children. Teachers are either qualified or are studying to becoming qualified.
I explained that my child was half Japanese and was happy to hear that the teachers will try to learn common terms and phrases. Recently they had a multicultural day where lots of various and delicious dished were devoured. I can’t remember seeing or hearing much in the way of Maori culture being acknowledged and celebrated but obviously a great resource is available if the centre and retirement village is a result of a joint venture including local Iwi.
At this point it seemed we had to hurry on so I wasn’t provided much of a chance to observe the children in play or teacher interactions with children. I can say I heard and saw lots of fun times being had by the older children. I saw too the nursery children enjoying their time in the sand and water although I had concerns about a child being left to cry for what I considered to be perhaps too long a time. Adults were present and down at the child’s level and I saw a ball being rolled in the direction of the child but perhaps rather than distraction it was time to acknowledge the child’s feelings, empathise and help the child to overcome the problem. Teachers in general appeared mostly busy with cleaning and tidying tasks though I did see some teacher-child interaction in the nursery area. After a peek inside the nursery room I was impressed with how materials had been attractively laid out ready to be discovered. I appreciated that being a tranquil and peaceful space, visitors to the nursery are kept to a minimum to keep it this way.
Finally on our way out we passed by the toddler space. I didn’t consider this space to be on par with the other areas. Located in the inside corner of the L-shaped building it seemed to be robbed of the same amounts of space, access and natural light. Toddlers have to walk on the bland shaded concrete veranda along the side of the building before they reach the sunny play area outside the nursery. I saw an unsuccessful effort to brighten up the barren veranda area with the use of some natural materials (wood and leaves) but the effect was ruined as were placed in a dreary white plastic container I also didn’t get the same homely, warm feeling as the other rooms though I’m not sure why. Perhaps due to the lack of zoned off space, wall window that looked out into the foyer and entrance way or maybe was just in need of a tidy up and my eyes hadn’t adjusted from coming in from the sunshine. Note that for this room we only had a passing glance as it seemed we were out of time.
I would have loved to have been permitted to get more of a feel for the place and to have had a chance to watch my child play and see how the teachers and children interacted but I had the impression our time was up after about 30 minutes. On our way out we were briefly told about profile books being used to provide parents with feedback. Upon leaving through my child’s potential room I enjoyed watching a teacher warmly and genuinely smiling and greeting him and another child coming over to make friends too. It was a nice and fitting way to end our visit.