What constitutes ‘quality’?
The cornerstone of quality for infants and toddlers is the nature of their interactions with educators. High quality interactions are characterised by:
- warm, emotionally supportive interactions with available and responsive educators;
- lots of talk about what the young child and others are doing and experiencing;
- to-and-fro exchanges where feelings, interests and ideas are shared and responded to; and
- educator attentiveness to, and support of early learning, including the encouragement of sensory and exploratory play, problem-solving and creative expression.
Quality also involves the provision of interesting and varied learning experiences. Infants and toddlers need materials to explore and play with in ways that meets their current learning abilities and sparks their curious minds.
They need opportunities to move and use their bodies as they become more mobile and coordinated. They need experience with language and self-expression through story-reading, singing, art and sensory play. And they need predictable routines and warm, unhurried caregiving experiences.
When these ingredients come together, the program quality is high and infants and toddlers are content, relaxed and busy learners! The early childhood centre offers an extension to the experiences that they have at home with their family – a fun and stimulating place where they form close relationships with educators and peers, and where they can play and learn in a supportive environment.
How is high quality assured in Australian early childhood infant-toddler programs?
Importantly, research has shown that early childhood employers can put in place provisions to increase the quality of infant-toddler programs.
Three features – educator qualifications and opportunities for professional growth, group size, and child/educator ratios – have been identified as central supports for high quality infant and toddler programs 5. No single feature predicts the quality of any infant-toddler program. Instead, these three elements work together to enable educators to engage in high quality interactions with very young children.
Qualified educators have the professional knowledge to know what constitutes high quality interactions and how to set up an environment that meets the varied learning capabilities of all of children in the group. Small group sizes and low child/educator ratios allow educators to be attentive, responsive and relaxed, increasing their ability to provide emotionally warm and positive interactions.
Fortunately, Australia has Education and Care Services National Regulations which stipulate the qualification levels and child/educator ratios that are required in infant-toddler rooms. A set of National Quality Standards require the centres meet a minimum standards in relation to educator-child interactions and the educational program.
While these provisions alone cannot ensure that an infant-toddler program will be of high quality, the National Quality Framework does give parents reassurance that the importance of quality is recognised and taken seriously.
So, the evidence is now clear – infant-toddler early childhood programs are not “bad for children”! On the contrary, when the quality is high, infant-toddler programs can enrich the lives and learning of our youngest children.