A home away from home: How home-based early learning meets a very real need

Published on Wednesday, 24 June 2020
Last updated on Friday, 17 December 2021

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As a working mum, when I first considered my return to work and looked at early childhood education (ECE) providers for my children, there were some key questions that I wanted to have answered.

Funnily enough, those questions didn’t revolve around the facilities or size of a service provider. They didn’t revolve around the number of other children my young child would interact with. They didn’t revolve around the day to day routines of the service or what kind of educational resources they had. My questions were simple.

Who would love our baby just like we do?

Who would know him or her best and understand all of the little traits that make them who they are?

Who would our baby turn to in times of trouble or triumph?

If they fell down, who would be there to help pick them up?

Who would capture all of those magical memories and milestones that we as working mums and dads often miss out on?

Who would we be able to connect with, communicate with and turn to for support if needed?

You see, my questions weren’t focused on ‘what’ or ‘where’. They were focused on ‘who’. It became clear to me pretty quickly that my decision around childcare was more about ‘the person’ I was leaving my child with when I couldn’t be there, rather than ‘the place’. 

Choosing a home-based educator for my son let me determine who that special person would be for him during my work hours. I could choose based on my child’s needs, my family’s values and aspirations and who I thought could become a part of the fabric of our family… someone who would go on to be an influence in the lives of our children in years to come.  It made total sense to me to be choosing the person.  This is why home-based early learning meets a very real need. It enables parents to have choice, and that is perhaps the biggest benefit of all.

Parents can choose which service type best fits the needs of their child and their family. We know that many choose centres and kindergartens, but we also know that home-based care fills a gap that other services simply can’t. Here’s how:

  • The small educator to children ratios. In a home-based education and care service, there needs to be one adult caring for every two children under the age of two, and one adult caring for every four children aged two and over, or for mixed ages. This means that each individual child's needs can be met in a connected and nurturing way.

  • For our children under three, this is particularly important when we understand all the work that is being done with the wiring up of the brain in the first 1,000 days. Only 30 per cent of a child's brain is developed at birth, with most of the remaining 70 per cent developed by the time they turn three. Research shows that secure attachment relationships between children and their caregivers are the single biggest factor in how well a brain develops during these early and most critical years. Our relationships are the lens through which we see the world. Being loved and cared for in nurturing environments by one special person sets our children up for a lifetime of success. It's as simple as that. For children with specific special needs or learning difficulties, this becomes even more important.

  • Home-based services also allow children to enjoy the magic of childhood at their own pace, with a familiarity around their normal home routines and in the comfort of a natural home environment. Children often have their own bedrooms, are able to settle to sleep easily and their educator’s home very quickly becomes a home away from home for them as they learn to explore their surroundings with growing confidence. 

  • The community forms an important part of a day to day early learning programme. Educators and their care children enjoy regular outings, events and larger group-based play and learning opportunities. Children benefit from getting out and about in their local communities and quickly gain an authentic appreciation for how the world around them works.  They can see things in ‘real life’ instead of in the pages of a book. They get to explore, experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and meaningful ways.

  • There’s flexibility. Home-based educators can often offer hours that other services can’t, or can be more available if extra days or hours are needed. Nannies or au pairs working from the family’s home are directly employed by families, with hours negotiated. As a mum who has had a nanny for my children, I can tell you first-hand how life changing it is to have someone arrive in the morning and just ‘take care of it’ when it comes to the early morning hustle and bustle.

  • It’s not just one person looking after a child – it’s a village. Home-based educators are looked after by service providers. These providers hold the licence to deliver care and education and are also responsible for ensuring high quality outcomes for children. They offer educators and families a range of different support options, including resources, professional development, subsidies and payment administration. Coordinators, who are certificated and qualified teachers, visit educators’ homes frequently and support the delivery of a programme that is based on our early childhood education curriculum, Te Whāriki.  There are robust health and safety checks undertaken before educators can be registered to deliver care and all providers work to set criteria and standards.

So, given all these benefits, why does home-based care still only represent 10 per cent of a very saturated early childhood education sector in New Zealand?  I think it’s because we don’t know what we don’t know. As parents, we don’t necessarily understand how beneficial something is until we’ve experienced it.

Sometimes it can be easy to do what others in our ante-natal or friend groups are doing because that seems to be a more ‘mainstream’ option.  In this digital age of information overload, making choices can be overwhelming. We can shy away from the unknown.  Because it forms such a small part of a growing sector, home-based care can sometimes be overlooked and under-represented.

The reality is that, for the parents that choose home-based care, it is anything but. Their educator is their lifeline. Their constant, familiar, nurturing and loving support person. Their treasure.  For the families that choose home-based care, it meets a very real need. We must not lose sight of the importance of choice for families when first embarking on their early learning journeys. Because at the end of the day, we all want to be able to choose that special person who will love our children just like we do. 

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