Two year-olds in kindergarten: becoming a 'kindy kid' (Transitions in ECE)

Ahakoa iti, he pounamu
Although it is small, it is of greenstone

Key question

What does it mean to become a 'kindy kid' for a toddler in an environment more familiar to ‘big kids’ and their teachers?


Every transition into an early childhood setting involves more than simply beginning to attend that setting. It’s also about 'becoming an ECE kid'. This 'becoming' involves new understandings around the child for the parents, the teachers and the child him/herself. These 'becomings' involve learning 'what it is we do here', 'what I (and others) can do here' and 'who I am in this place' (people, places and things) for the child and their family and whānau.

Is this your image of a toddler?

Toddler Creed

If I want it, it's mine.

If I give it to you and change my mind later, it's mine.

If I take it away from you, it's mine. If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.

If it's mine, it will never belong to anybody else, no matter what.

If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine. 
If it looks just like mine, it is mine.

(Author unknown)

This ‘becoming’ can position the child from the first day as either a capable and competent child who is becoming an active ECE participant in the community OR as a child lacking in skills, development and abilities. Which child is the one entering your setting?

In a research project undertaken in Dunedin and Wellington, funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative(external link), Duncan et al. (2006) examined the experiences of 18 two-year-olds who were attending four different kindergarten settings. This research challenged some traditional understandings and images around transitions into early childhood programmes, in terms of how capable and competent the very young child in an ECE environment can be (for full details see Duncan et al., 2006; Duncan, 2005, 2009). Kindergartens, as an ECE setting, are more familiar with over three-year-olds, so the recent introduction of relatively large numbers of two-year-olds has introduced new understandings of what a ‘kindy kid’ can be.

Exploring the images of the young child in the kindergarten setting

A first-timer or an old-hand?

Two-year-olds who had an older sibling attending the kindergarten found that this eased the transition process significantly – irrespective of the age of the child. So being one, two, three or four-years-old on starting at the kindergarten was less important than the familiarity of the people, places and things.

Reflective questions:

  • Does age influence your thoughts about the child as you prepare for their arrival to your centre?
  • Does this support their transition or limit their opportunities on arrival?

It’s time to…

Routines are seen as important learning for the children, facilitating settling-in and becoming part of the setting. We observed that the 18 two-year-olds very quickly adjusted to the routines of the programme – with some support from the teachers, and in some cases, the other children. However, as researchers, we were interested to note that, on some days, up to 54% of a session could be taken up with the ‘routines’ of the programme – for example, afternoon tea, tidy up time and mat times.

Or is your image like this?

"This child was having a look up in the tree. He spent time looking up into the branches of the tree. He listened and watched the leaves blowing in the wind. And he said: "shush". While holding his finger to his pursed lips, he talked in a whisper and told me that there were birds up in the tree, in a gentle way, so as not to frighten the birds. Another child was with him and was really intrigued and looking really carefully for the birds. And it was just one of those really superb, warm, fuzzy moments where all those things that we want for children to be imaginative and playful with their surroundings were happening and suddenly I wasn’t the teacher, I was the learner with the teacher. It was fabulous." (Michelle, reproduced from Duncan, 2009, pp. 179-180).

Reflective questions:

  • Is this amount of time spent on routines and teacher-directed activities a good use of transition times?
  • Are learning routines the most important focus for a young child in their settling-in times?
  • What do parents and family understand from this emphasis on routine?

If you think they can do it – then they can

According to Bloch and Popkowitz (2000, pp. 20-25) the theories and outcomes of child development and educational psychology govern teachers’ and parents’ perceptions of children and shape today's pedagogical practices (pp. 20-25). Box 1, for example, is often how we think of and perceive toddlers. It is a familiar discourse about the very young child, one that looks at children as a ‘becoming' – that is, incomplete and lacking in a development 'sort-of' way. The following extract demonstrates a very different image of the toddler.

In both examples, what becomes possible for any child, at any given moment, is being shaped by the teachers’ understanding of child development and their images of the child. This change in image of the two-year-old demonstrates the unique way in which socio-cultural 'ways of being' and 'ways of knowing' can reposition teachers and children away from developmental limitations, to engaging in meaningful interactions that are supportive of positive learning and teaching relationships and environments.

Reflective questions:

  • When you look at toddlers in your setting, which are the images that immediately appear in your mind?
  • On what theories of development are you basing your pedagogical practices?
  • What theories do you base your decisions for children on?
  • How do your ideas shape the experiences of the children in your setting?
  • How does your understanding of ability shape your decisions and intentions for pedagogy?

Equipping ‘down’ for the younger child

A focus on ‘ages and stages’ still heavily influences teachers’ thinking about very young children in a way that is often not applied to the older preschooler. The older young child is often assumed to be ‘capable and competent’, while discussions about two-year-olds often focus on what they ‘cannot do’, or on the limits that the child’s physicality brings to any particular session. For example, more complex equipment and resourcing for the older children in the programme can be seen as a problem for the younger child.

In our study (Duncan et al., 2006) teachers regularly discussed removing such equipment and resources in preparation for the arrival of younger children. The focus at this stage of the teachers’ discussions was often on safety issues and demonstrated their concern about the younger children’s level of competence. These daily struggles are mirrored in Greenman’s (2005) challenge for early childhood education environments to support the growth and learning of two-year-olds in their settings.

In a recent workshop with home-based educators these ‘dangers’ of resources with young children entered the debate when the visiting teachers (coordinators) presented troughs filled with a variety of different resources for the children and educators to experience. (This was part of a TLRI funded project in the home-based sector. See Duncan et al., 2008 for further details). Shelley, a visiting teacher, explains.

Opening up our decisions to discussion was very powerful as quite a debate started about the appropriateness of some materials we provided. Some educators said they did not like the flubber as it could be toxic (it isn’t) and the glass beads created quite a controversy.

Over the next few weeks the glass bead debate raged. Some educators were adamant that glass was dangerous and should not be used with young children ever and voiced shock that trained teachers would support such a thing. Visiting teachers were encouraged to ask questions about educators thinking on this matter and to support the decision that individual educators made about the use of glass beads. Some educators loved the glass beads and raced out and instantly brought some. (Duncan et al., 2008)

Reflective questions:

  • On what do we base our equipment decisions?
  • How can we address the environment so that it expands rather than limits children’s learning opportunities?
  • Is less in the environment always the right decision for a younger child?
  • How can we provide responsible risks for children to provide learning opportunities and develop learning dispositions?

"How do you develop an environment that allows for collecting, hauling, dumping, and painting (with the requisite tasting of the paint and experimenting with the logical primary canvas, namely themselves)? How do you allow the necessary robust, explosive, and occasionally clumsy motor learning with a group of amoral beings who are largely oblivious to the safety of others - a group, however, that often hums with a current of collective energy? In a group setting, how do you accommodate and support the wonderful, albeit erratic, do-it-myself desire and the equally developmentally important but often less wonderful assertion of "No!" - and still accomplish anything in a reasonable time frame? Finally, how do you muster up the time, let alone the patience and sensitivity, to help each child through the agony and ecstasy of toilet training? "Mission impossible" may in fact understate the situation."(Greenman, 2005, p. 138)


After reading this short piece we encourage you to consider:

1)   What does it mean to begin attending your setting for each child and their family and whānau? 

2)   What are your images of the child, before they arrive, and when they have begun? 

3)   Are the children in your setting ‘becoming an active participant in your ECE community’ or are they incomplete developmentally and only a ‘becoming’? 

4)   How does your image of the child impact on the experiences (people, places and things) that are available for them at any given time? 

5)   How do these ideas apply to all the children in your ECE community?


  • Bloch, M. N., & Popkewitz, T. S. (2000). Constructing the parent, teacher and child: discourses in development. In L. Diaz Soto (Ed.), The politics of early childhood education (Vol. 10, pp. 7-32). New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc.
  • Duncan, J. (2005). Two year-olds in New Zealand kindergartens - What are they doing there?! First Years: New Zealand Infant and Toddler Journal, 7(2), 4-8.
  • Duncan, J. (2009). "If you think they can do - then they can". Two-year-olds in Aotearoa New Zealand kindergartens and changing professional perspectives. In D. Berthelsen, J. Brownlee and E. Johansson. (Eds). Participatory learning in the early years: research and pedagogy, (pp. 164-184). New York: Routledge.
  • Duncan, J., Dalli, C., Becker, R., Butcher, M., Foster, K., Hayes, K., Lake-Ryan, S., Mackie, B., Montgomery, H., McCormack, P., Muller, R., Sherburd, R., Taita, J., & Walker, W. (2006). Under three-year-olds in kindergarten: children’s experiences and teachers’ practices. Report prepared for the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative(external link), New Zealand Council for Educational Research, August 2006.
  • Duncan, J., Auld, S., Fagan, H., Irvine, P., Smith, C., & Weir S. (2008, August). Home-based Early Childhood Education (Family Day Care): The Visiting Teachers’ role in improving Educators’ practices – What makes a difference? Keynote address at the University of Otago College of Education Early Childhood Research Hui, Dunedin. (Funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative)
  • Greenman, J. (2005). Caring spaces, learning places. Children's environments that work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press Inc.

Useful links

Additional Reading

  • Balaban, N. (2006). Easing the separation process for infants, toddlers, and families. 
  • Epstein, A. S. (2007). The intentional teacher: choosing the best strategies for young children's learning. Washington: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
  • Gonzalez-Mena, J., & Widmeyer Eyer, D. (2001). Infants, toddlers, and caregivers. London: Mayfield Publishing Company.
  • Greenman, J. (2005). Caring spaces, learning places. Children's environments that work. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press Inc.
  • Greenman, J., Stonehouse, A., & Schweikert, G. (2008). Prime Times (2nd ed.). St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.
  • Woodhead, M. (2000). Towards a global paradigm for research into early childhood. In H. Penn (Ed.), Early childhood services: theory, policy and practice (pp. 15-35). Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Woodhead, M., & Faulkner, D. (2000). Subjects, objects or participants? Dilemmas of psychological research with children. In P. Christensen & A. James (Eds.), Research with children: perspectives and practices (pp. 9-35). London: Falmer Press.

This paper was prepared by Judith Duncan, University of Canterbury, 2009.

Last reviewed: Has this been useful? Give us your feedback