In 1994, Childspace founders Toni and Robin Christie were working in early childhood education in Christchurch, but they weren’t as happy as they thought they should be. “We were young, fresh and idealistic,” Toni admits. “The standard of early childhood education was really appalling at the time. I used to come home so upset.”
Having saved up some money, the young couple decided to put a mortgage deposit down and open their own centre in their first home. “We were the only teachers there,” she continues, thinking back 21 years. “We would work from 7am till 6pm, fold all the nappies, prepare the morning tea for the next day, then go to bed.” Three years later, while starting a young family, they decided to move to Wellington to be closer to their parents. “The demand was huge in Wellington, so we opened subsequent centres really quickly,” Toni enthuses.
Over the last two decades, Childspace has expanded to include four child-care centres in Karori, Wilton, Northland, and Ngaio. They’ve also established the Childspace Early Childhood Institute, which works in synergy with the centres to refresh, nurture and educate their teachers on an ongoing basis. From there they publish books, resources and a quarterly magazine, The Space, for teachers and parents of young children. Alongside the institute, they also run the Childspace Workshop, which specialises in designing and building playgrounds, equipment and furnishings geared towards early childhood.
Priding themselves on small classes, regular outdoor nature experiences, an emphasis on art and music, quality practice and supportive teacher–child ratios, Childspace’s core values are born from an ongoing commitment to research, innovation and development. “We take a little bit from a lot of different philosophies in our approach,” Toni says. “When you study in early childhood, you learn about people like Maria Montessori and Rudolph Steiner. We take the parts of their philosophies we can adapt into our own social culture and context. If some of these theorists from a long time ago were still alive, they would have changed their theories to fall in line with current research.”
The results of this approach have been a focused and nurturing centre environment and local and international recognition for Childspace as early childhood innovators. In the process, they’ve helped to foster an experience fondly remembered by many. “The first children we looked after have gotten hold of us via Facebook. They’ve said, ‘I remember that place really well, and I remember how fun it was,’” Toni recalls. “These children remember us really well. We started Childspace so that we could have a good job each, but it’s become so much more. It’s truly humbling.”