4 Best Practice Ideas From New Zealand ECE

What’s Working in New Zealand

The New Zealand education system has a reputation for innovation, supported by consistent success in international tests.  This success starts with a sophisticated, but always evolving early childhood education system. The nation has long appreciated the power of investing in their young ones.

While not everything translates, New Zealand is a treasure trove of good ideas, food for thought for child care centers worldwide.

1. School Readiness, Building The Inner Core

New Zealand has had a national early childhood curriculum since 1995, and government-funded access to early education for three and four-year olds since 2007. It also has famous thought leaders in ECE, including Margaret Carr, an early collaborator in Educa.

The New Zealand early education curriculum, Te Whariki is a bi-cultural document with the following aspirations for children:

… to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society.

There are five ‘strands’ in the curriculum that apply to infants and young children:

  • well-being
  • belonging
  • contribution
  • communication
  • exploration

Notice, nothing about reading, math or academics in general. There are activities that involve numeracy using blocks, dominoes, etc. and literacy, such as playing with maps. However, the philosophy is not to formally focus on academics — there’s plenty of time for that later.  This childhood curriculum also differs from the traditional developmental curriculum map of: physical, intellectual, emotional and social (PIES) skills, which dominates European curriculum models.

The execution of these learning goals is largely left to each center. However, it is worth noting that almost all centers use unstructured learning, pay-based experiential learning, with very little structured “mat time.”


New Zealand early education steers educators to a very different idea of school readiness than exists in North America. The New Zealand goal is to build child’s inner core, creating a grounding, a foundation that makes him or her a confident and resilient learner, a learning risk-taker, once they enter school.

New Zealand early education produces confident learnersThis confidence is highly valued, as is nurturing a love of learning. Therefore, while young children do hear a lot of language, language bombardment, there is no premature exposure to academics. An unsuccessful start to reading in particular has the potential to undermine confidence, not to mention risk a negative connection to learning.

Instead, New Zealand focuses on creating little learning powerhouses.

They are resilient and grounded learners who are wound up and ready to let fly once they hit school!

Being a learning risk-taker is at the core of the Matthew Principle, the idea that despite all the added attention paid to lagging students, the strong starters do better. A resilient learner can endure a slow start to reading, she will push through a difficulty with her times tables, she loves learning and she is up for the challenge. Setbacks are just temporary.

This is school readiness, New Zealand style.

Reciprocal relationships and interactions are of central importance. Children actively co-construct their own knowledge and understandings in everyday social and cultural settings (Smith 2011).

New Zealand high school educational success is at least in part due to the foundations laid by early education.  While the role of early education is still largely under-appreciated in America, New Zealand’s a school readiness model will likely resonate with parents.

2. Preschools Are Trusted Because They Are Inspected

98% of children in New Zealand attend preschool compared to 58% in the United States.

Why the difference? Part of it is the voucher system, where the New Zealand government pays for 20 hours of preschool a week. Just as important is parent attitude. There is a conservative strain in New Zealand that, like America, advocates for the value of one parent not working outside the home.

But that does not preclude preschool.  Parents see it as worthwhile. And that in large part comes down to trust. Trust that their child’s preschool is making a difference in their child’s life.

That trust in large part comes from the fact that preschools in New Zealand are part of the school system. There are regular inspections, national curriculum goals and they are subject to adult/child ratio regulations.

While subjecting your preschool to this level of obligation is voluntary in the United States, you can see the value. The fact that only 2% of families do not send their children to preschool says something about the confidence NZ parents have in their early education system.

The lesson here might be that state QRIS programs are worth investigating.  QRIS is a state-by-state attempt to raise the standard of child care. The process itself will make you a better center, and the rating will be a source of trust for incoming parents.

3. Accountability Around Process, Not Outcomes

At one time, New Zealand had a checklist system of assessment that purported to evaluate each child.  However, there were real doubts about the accuracy and therefore value of that data, which was being used in decision-making, given that it took up so much teacher time. The evaluations tended to be hurried and required a lot of compromised entries – checklists and rating systems often cannot capture the development path of young ones.

And so New Zealand made two dramatic changes:

  1. Accountability moved to a focus on process
  2. Learning stories replaced checklists

Measure Inputs & They Will Improve

The New Zealand government philosophy is that if a center is following best practice — engaging parents to understand each child, creating high quality learning experiences differentiated for each child, intentional practice working towards curriculum goals, regular evaluation and reflection of teaching practice, etc.- then positive learning outcomes must follow.  Quality inputs lead to quality outputs.

This process is audited through a combination of onsite inspections and teacher self-assessment where the focus is on measurable elements of what represents quality practice, e.g., the number of learning stories for a child, the curriculum coverage of those stories, evidence of reflection in teacher portfolios, etc.

These are all quantifiable and reliable indicators.  Furthermore, the educator activities being measured have a direct impact on learning outcomes.  This is in contrast to checklist assessment, where the connection to child outcomes is tenuous at best.

Learning Stories Capture Learning

New Zealand teachers  write “learning stories” — a holistic approach to assessment where teachers notice student’s progress, analyze the learning and invite others to contribute perspectives.  Over the course of a year, 10-12 learning stories collect in a  portfolio that represents that child’s journey, and their assessment.

Learning Stories do not highlight deficiencies, weaknesses, or mistakes. Instead, they recognize that each child is a unique individual who interacts with the world around her and learns differently, through a process that is uniquely her own.

Learn more about learning stories as an assessment tool here.

4. Parents Are Part of the Learning Team

The idea of parents as teachers has been in New Zealand since 1941.  That’s when Playcentre started, a network of parent-led early education centers throughout New Zealand. Parents are responsible to set up and run the centers, and for the education the children will receive.

Educators embrace this mindset of tapping into parents whole-heartedly. And in New Zealand parent engagement, parents involved in their child’s education is morphing into so-called “authentic family collaboration.”


Authentic family collaboration describes the sharing of learning with parents where they provide real and helpful feedback. Not just, that’s cute.  But rather, he found this really interesting. Or, he did not understand that activity. This feedback loop is powerful.  It creates a 24/7 360 degree circle around a child where everyone who cares about him or her knows what’s going on.

This collaboration is taking off rapidly in New Zealand now that there is technology to manage the sharing,  technology from Educa. Sharing activities is one thing. You can actually do that with photo sharing and social apps. But sharing updates with reference to curriculum goals is a whole new level of parent involvement. Teachers can easily clue parents into the learning goals behind each activity, which has the effect of motivating the parents to collaborate even more enthusiastically.

One of the reasons Educa took off in New Zealand (and Australia) is that educators see how it reels parents in as co-conspirators in the learning. To date, teachers on Educa have created over 7 million learning opportunities.  7 million times teachers share curriculum, observations or activities with parents. Where instead of parents getting a “Nothing much!” answer to the age-old question, what did you do today?, parents have insights into the school day that they can use to build on the learning.

Parent engagement is powerful tool in early education. It is an increasingly important target for state QRIS programs and accreditation programs. Furthermore, teacher-led family engagement habits that start in early childhood are a powerful driver of learning outcomes later.

Unstructured Learning Needs Structure

As a side note, Educa is a communications and documentation platform developed in New Zealand to help provide structure for educators managing an unstructured learning approach. It is also at the center of the parent collaboration model and it provides downloadable and print-ready learning evidence and documentation for parents, school inspectors and other interested parties.