What separates a good daycare from a bad one? Aside from blatant code violations and a bright and cheerful environment, what can parents look for in a new center?
As a daycare professional, I regularly see prospective parents come to tour our center. Some of these parents come with very specific ideas of what constitutes good daycare, and a few have even come with a typed list of questions for our director to answer. Sadly, this is the exception rather than the rule. Most parents spend less time choosing the people who will care for their child(ren) than they do choose a car. This might be dismissed as negligence, but I believe that it is really due to the fact that many parents simply don’t know what they can look for that separates a good center from a bad daycare.
There are several things that most parents know to look for a bright and clean environment, pleasant teachers, and no apparent fire code violations-but what about the less obvious things. These are things that parents, grandparents, and other guardians can look for, and teachers can be aware of in providing a quality day care center.
When state officials have spoken to me, one thing that they have mentioned that they look for in the winter are lots of footprints out on the playground as evidence that the center takes the children outside regularly. It is a time-consuming task to dress children in their snow clothes, and some centers simply avoid this many winter days with the excuse of it being “too cold.” In the summer, this can be applied simply by looking for patches of grass that should be worn down near the door, at the end of the slides, under the swings and in various other places. During the heat of the summer, some may be tempted to keep kids indoors and avoid the summer heat, but physical activity is important year-round.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to be a desirable trait in a daycare, and I am not speaking of heaps of garbage or extreme disorder-this is just as bad as obsessive neatness. The thing to remember here is that when child care providers are spending time cleaning, they are spending time away from interacting with children. Also, children need to be free to mess up the art table or to have their blanky hanging out of their cubby without fear of being chastised. Look for child-initiated art projects on the drying rack, library books slightly out of order on the shelves, soap or paint residue around the sink in the bathroom. Any sign of moldy food, broken and jagged toys or materials blocking entrances and exits are NOT allowable, however.
As a parent, grandparent, or another guardian, you may worry that when you investigate a new center and see the teachers interacting in a loving manner with the children that it is merely because you are there observing. What is the true relationship between children and adults when no one is intruding? One way to gain an idea of this is to return for a surprise visit after the initial, scheduled visit, and tour.
This is also a good way to meet more of the teachers than the director or authority that leads you through the center. These teachers may be college students working towards careers in education, mothers who are working in exchange for daycare hours, or simply people who need a little extra cash. For the most part, these are the people who will be talking to, playing with, and disciplining your child. Some important questions to ask these teachers are:
~ How long have you worked here? (If every teacher is new, this could be an indication of high turnover or of relative inexperience)
~ What do you do in case of fire or another emergency? (Every staff member should know this. Contact information should be taken, children counted against the sign in and out the sheet, and everyone should move to an assigned place. My center also has an agreement with the church next door that in poor weather we can bring the children over and use their sanctuary.)
~What is your favorite part of working with kids? (Most will NOT say the money, and the answer should give you a good idea of who they are and what has motivated them to choose an often hectic and regularly frustrating job.)
Questions to Consider
There are a few personal questions that you should ask yourself about the center.
~ Will I feel comfortable sharing my personal information and issues with these teachers? (Divorce, death of grandparents, and loss of jobs are just some of the life events that are important for childcare providers to know since children can pick up and react to the underlying emotion of these events.)
~ Are there male teachers at this school? (Male teachers are a great blessing for kids, but some parents automatically have worries about males around their young children. Purely to ensure that no one has any cause to suspect him, my center does not allow our one male teacher to close alone, and if a child has a bathroom accident where they need help, he asks a female teacher to step in.)
Picking a center with the right mix of teachers can be a great thing for not only your children but for you as a parent. I have had the opportunity to make friends with many of the parents that I serve, and learn about the things that excite them and frustrate them, and a person to use as a sounding board for the many issues that come up in parenting.