A lead researcher says New Zealand must address a "crisis" of early childhood education, as the Government has failed to provide an adequate level of care.
New research by the University of Otago's Department of Public Health has revealed that 20 to 30 percent of early childhood centres in New Zealand could be harmful to children.
Key issues are stress, inconsistent relationships, noise, overcrowding and poor-quality outdoor areas.
University of Otago PhD student Mike Bedford says children are disadvantaged in these environments, and are being robbed of a carefree childhood.
"While being fenced into small spaces devoid of grass and natural environments with no space to run, they are often isolated from normal adult conversation, parks, varied town spaces, and other members of their communities," he explained.
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The Ministry of Education's current standards for space allocation equates to about 30 children and five adults in a modest three-bedroom home, which is one of the lowest standards in the OECD.
"It's serious overcrowding," Mr Bedford says.
"But it's worse if the centre is bigger, with more noise and even larger group sizes. Group size directly affects teacher-child relationships, noise and stress."
New Zealand's outdoor allocation is the size of a quarter-acre section for 100 or more children. In addition, our minimum temperature standard is the worst in the world, with 19 out of 21 centres failing to meet the standard in 2017 research.
Mr Bedford says early childhood education needs to be properly recognised and staffed as a specialist role by central Government, with strong cross-sector support.
However Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds doesn't believe early childhood centre care is in a crisis, and says Mr Bedford's research isn't accurate.
"There's always going to be examples of services that can do better, but there's no specific crisis going on," he said.
"There are plenty of regulations that services have to abide by if they want to continue to operate. Those regulations have been around for a while and are quite detailed."
Mr Reynolds says the research will make parents concerned for the wellbeing of their child when there's no need to be.
"New Zealand is regarded as one of the top two or three early learning environments in the world, and that's for a reason."
He says other countries look at our learning model and try to emulate it.
"When you try to compare services across different constituencies, it becomes difficult because you're not comparing apples with apples," Mr Reynolds explained.
"To say that we are one of the lowest in the OECD is not an accurate reflection of where we're at."
Reynolds says he encourages parents that have concerns of this nature to go to their early childhood centre and spend time talking with their teachers and managers to get peace of mind.