Playground Danger

By Alice Fothergill

Large numbers of infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children spend their days in childcare centers. In turn, the youngest members of society depend on adult caregivers to make evacuation decisions, secure shelter, and assist in reuniting child survivors with their parents should a disaster occur. While previous research has focused on preparedness and disaster risk reduction in schools, less attention has been given to organizational preparedness in childcare settings.

This research examined how New Zealand (Aotearoa) addresses disaster preparedness among childcare facilities. New Zealand was selected for this case study because of its history of innovative preparedness and its commitment to learning from past disasters. The nation is also vulnerable to a variety of hazards, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and tsunamis. In 2016, the Kaikoura earthquake triggered a tsunami and landslides, causing severe damage on both the South Island and in the city of Wellington on the North Island. In 2020 and 2021, the entire country of New Zealand dealt with significant flooding.

During my time in New Zealand as a Fulbright Fellow, I conducted interviews in person in and around the city of Wellington, a region that experiences significant risk to multiple hazards. Participants included individuals working directly in childcare (including center directors); those who study, write, or disseminate policies; and those who conduct preparedness training for regional government. Interviews were augmented by observations done during visits to four childcare centers.

Data analysis provided valuable insights into the perspectives of those working directly in the childcare field and of those charged with developing and implementing policy. These insights highlighted the most essential aspects of childcare center emergency preparedness and five factors that help or hinder preparedness and policy implementation.

Regulation Clarity

Researcher Alice Fothergill stands by a tsunami evacuation route in New Zealand. © Carol Stewart, 2017

The first key element of effective preparedness is clear regulations. Policies that are ambiguous can be a barrier to preparedness, recovery, and the reopening of childcare centers after a disaster. Teachers, parents, center directors, and researchers all expressed their concern about vague regulations. They want to be informed about what the law requires and what the best practices are.

Because childcare centers are classified as businesses, they are not under the jurisdiction of New Zealand’s Ministry of Education; therefore, they do not follow the same guidelines as schools. However, the centers do receive a guidance document from the national emergency management agency to help with planning and developing an emergency plan. While interviewees had a range of views about the right amount of regulation of childcare centers, all agreed that policy clarity was essential. One interviewee, the director of a childcare center, suggested the sharing of best practices among childcare centers in a specific region, which would help disseminate information based on the hazards in that area.


Informal and formal communication between government agencies and childcare centers is especially important, as it relates directly to regulation clarity. Regional government training is seen as particularly useful in gaining knowledge about how to prepare childcare centers.

Center directors and administrators also need to communicate clearly with their staff, especially about various disaster scenarios and expectations surrounding staff members’ abilities to remain at the center during and after a disaster. Communication among childcare centers is important as well, as it is helpful for staff to learn how other centers are preparing. Effective communication between childcare centers and families is critical to having effective and clear reunification plans for parents and children in the aftermath of a disaster. Parents may take unnecessary risks trying to get to childcare centers; indeed, at trainings they stressed to the centers how unclear communication with parents, and sometimes a lack of trust, has led to the loss of lives in disasters in other countries.


The role of leadership emerged as a key component of preparedness in childcare centers. The centers that appear to be the most prepared are those where the leaders are effective communicators who are respected by their staff. These directors make sure their center has an evacuation plan and that the staff are informed of these plans. Trust between staff and families is also key to effective leadership. When parents have confidence in a center director’s leadership, they also feel reassured about their child’s safety.


Research has shown that childcare center teachers and schools want more training to help them gain the skills to prepare for and respond to disasters. This includes not only training within their own centers, but also with other centers, where they can share their experiences from previous disasters. The training sessions observed as part of this study revealed how participants were able to think through various scenarios together in a relaxed environment. Many attendees acknowledged the importance of reunification drills but shared that they had never been involved in one.


The final theme that emerged in this research regarding effective preparedness was related to networks. Businesses, residents, and families located in the vicinity of a childcare center can be an integral part of preparedness. In the past, local businesses have allowed employees to leave after an earthquake to assist the childcare with evacuation. Others, such as hotels, have provided backup evacuation space following a disaster. In addition, tight-knit Māori communities can assist with preparedness by offering communal spaces, such as meeting houses. New Zealand researchers have found that Māori community-led disaster management practices are often collaborative and informed by strong cultural values.

Adequate preparedness in childcare settings helps ensure physical and emotional safety for children, their families, and those who work in the childcare sector. By implementing policies and practices that address the above obstacles, childcare centers can be better prepared for future disasters.

About the Special Collection

This special collection of Research Counts grew out of a longstanding collaboration between the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) and the Natural Hazards Center. Our commitment in this special collection is to bring key findings and ideas from recent IJMED articles to a broader audience of emergency managers, disaster risk reduction professionals, and policy makers in the hazards and disaster field.

This Research Counts article was written by science and travel writer, Laurie J. Schmidt. It is based upon the following publication:

Fothergill, Alice. 2021. “Childcare Centers and Disaster Preparedness: Lessons from New Zealand.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 39(3): 434-464.