Westport Kindergarten gets all five Best Start stars: 100% qualified teachers, good adult-to-child ratios, small group sizes, positive relationships, and a warm and loving learning environment. But that’s not all. This is both an all-day early childhood education (ECE) centre AND a kindergarten” working together on the same site, with two types of education happening simultaneously. And it works. Alongside Westport Kindergarten is a brand new, purpose-built, architecturally designed centre with state-of-the-art learning spaces and equipment. Five years in the planning, it opened earlier this year. It operates on a tuakana teina model” to the right is the kindy and to the left is the early childhood centre.

Meet Olivia” a busy little artist, she’s already produced a masterpiece or two today. She arrives at the centre at 8am and goes across to kindy from 8.30 to 12.30. Her little brother is also at the centre and he gets really excited when she comes back after the morning session. Several family groups interacting like this add to the whānau atmosphere.

The kindy is licensed for 96 children, and that also covers the centre. Both centres are under the same licence but there are three distinct areas” the half-day sessional areas for morning and afternoon kindergarten and the new early childhood centre, which operates under a full-day licence.

How did it come about?

Mary Logan is chief executive of the Nelson Kindergarten Association. She says Westport is unusual in that the town was growing and a lot of children weren’t participating in early childhood education.

The kindergarten also had a building that needed redeveloping and land available, so the Nelson association” which provides administrative support and professional development for Westport” applied for funding through the government’s Targeted Assistance for Participation (TAP).

With the government’s funding cuts, parents might see private providers employing untrained teachers as a cheaper option. But the kindergarten had a good reputation in the town, Mary says, because it has such good teachers and is very well run. And by holding open days and encouraging community participation, it’s won strong support from the locals, who have elected a “very proactive” board of trustees.

The noticeboard in the entrance displays photos of the teachers” all of them qualified. NZEI Te Riu Roa field officer Una McNair says teachers moved to the kindy because they prefer to work under a collective agreement rather than for a private provider. But she says the kindergarten is keen to make sure it doesn’t undermine the community-based centre which continues to operate next door.

The flexible model meets the needs of families, giving parents a lot more options. The children are in appropriate age groups” and although the two areas have a different focus, the children are used to crossing from one to another.

Westport head teacher Mary Rose says children and parents are getting the best of both worlds” if parents need it, their children have full-time care, but they don’t have the intensity of kindergarten all day” it’s broken by the more relaxed atmosphere of the early learning centre. “They have really good transitioning right through the centre,” she says. “They know all the teachers, and there’s a free flow” if I say I’m going to kindy, I might have five kids come with me.”

Less daunting

And it’s just a short stroll” it feels a bit like going from one carriage to another on a train” not the Rubicon. So moving up to kindy becomes less daunting, and it’s likely they’ll manage the transition to school better as well. The arrangement also means children who otherwise wouldn’t have got into kindy until they were only six months shy of their fifth birthday can now begin much earlier” and cash-strapped parents can access the 20 hours free education for their children from age three.

Mary Rose says children who have several years of good quality early childhood education become much better at relationships, and become used to supporting each other.

Speaking of support, over at kindergarten I watched Mary Rose help a frustrated little boy work out for himself how to get to the top of the slide – it was quite a challenge. A cautious boy, he was clearly worried he’d fall” but with patience and encouragement, five minutes later he was scrambling up the ladder, clambering over the bar, and shooting down the slide like a pro.

That’s just one example of children challenging themselves” the kindy has what might be the only flying fox left in a kindergarten in these risk-averse times: it’s not far off the ground, but the children feel like they’re flying.

Check out NZEI’s Best Start campaign at www.beststart.org.nz