Not all of us are lucky enough to stay at home. Which means some of us have the unlucky task of choosing child care for our little loves. Picking a daycare is one of the hardest things you have to do as a parent. Not only are you picking the people who are responsible for your child’s safety while you’re apart, but those who are educating them in some of the most formidable years of their life. How can you know if your daycare is up to snuff when you are not there all day to watch over your provider? Here are some big clues I’ve come up with over the years during child care facility observations, my time as a preschool teacher, classroom teacher, and parent.
This list of clues is fairly comprehensive. A child care facility which was perfect on each level would be hard to come by, so as you’re reading, understand that the daycare that’s right for your child may not have all of these or they may have other qualities you find important. Also, understand that I am using the terms daycare, child care, center, facility, etc. as blanket terms. This list is a great place to start whether you’re looking at a large child care center or a small home daycare.
- Environment. What happens when you walk through the door of your child’s daycare? I’m not talking about if you’re acknowledged or said hello to, but how do you feel? Does it make you happy to be there? Is it colorful? Are their interesting things for the kids to see at their eye-level? Not just toys, but posters or artwork? Does it feel bright and is the temperature comfortable?
- Cleanliness. How clean is the facility? Do you actually see the staff cleaning things? Is there a routine for cleaning
after meals and messy art activities? Can you see cleanliness when you walk in? Does it smell clean? Is there a system for monitoring if toys have been mouthed in the baby or toddler rooms and then cleaning them before other children play with them? Cleanliness is a sign of pride in the facility. If it’s not clean, the staff doesn’t have much pride in their workplace, which means they’re likely not as dedicated to the center as they should be. Another sign of cleanliness can be how often the workers are sick. If the center is doing everything they can to be clean and healthy, staff should generally (everyone gets stick sometimes!) be able to stay healthy even though they’re working with snotty kids all day.
- Do the kids contribute to the environment? Is their artwork displayed? Can they see it? Is it changed out regularly, signaling that new activities are planned often? How are the kids made to feel important and loved? Are there
pictures of the children up? Are their names displayed? How at home are the kids made to feel? Is the space really theirs or is it just a place they’re kept?
- Are their routines? Kids are happier when things are predictable. Ensuring that your daycare has a well scheduled routine can be a major factor in how good the daycare is. Not only does it make things easier on the kids, it keeps the teachers on track to get everything in for the day. From naps, snacks, and diaper changes, to outdoor time, circle times, and sensory activities…a schedule keeps everyone on track. It’s even better if the schedule is displayed somewhere in the classroom with pictures for kiddos who can’t read yet.
- What do you see happening? This is the biggest factor. As I stated before, there should be good routines and schedules in place, so if you come in at exactly the same time every day you may see the exact same things happening every day. Kids do need time to warm up to the environment when they first get to daycare and free play is a great way to transition in and out. But, if you have the ability to stop by at different times, what do you see going on? Are teachers engaged with the kids? Are teachers “teaching” or leading activities? Do you see arts and crafts happening? Do you see children being read to? Chances are, if you NEVER see these things happening (even if you do come at a certain time) they’re not happening. Especially with younger children, who tend to have more “child-based” schedules. A big red flag can be if you constantly see teachers just talking to each other.
- Materials. Is there a variety of materials available to your child to use? Not only for arts and crafts, but for different areas of play. Is there a gross motor area (inside and out), is there manipulative play suitable for your child’s age group? Are their sensory and art areas? Is your child allowed to play with and discover a variety of mediums, not necessarily in one day, but are you seeing things be changed out? How often are toys rotated? Is there any sort of toy rotation? Do you see new things being introduced on a regular basis? Are children bored with the toys or do they seem to be enjoying them? Below is a more specific list of what you should see based on your child’s age:
- Infant (Birth-mobility): Look for a variety of (clean) infant positioners, such as: Boppy pillows, Bumbo chairs (safely on the floor), tummy time mats, swings, bouncy seats, comfortable blankets. It’s very important for muscle development that infants are moved regularly, if they’re not already mobile. Check for a schedule of rotation to ensure all of the babies are getting the opportunity to use all of the positioners appropriate for them. There should be visually stimulating toys such a mobiles and things they can track. Manipulative such as rattles, teethers, and board books. Toys with a variety of textures items children can touch and feel. There doesn’t necessarily need to be lots of toys with lights and music. In fact, in a daycare those can be rather over-stimulating for infants. Cribs and comfortable places for sleep. A rocker for putting children to sleep is great, too. A completely separate area for sleep is even better. Also look for he center’s method of tracking feedings, diapers, and naps for infants. There is no way they could keep the kids schedules straight with out them. Trust me, I’ve been there and there is so much going on you NEED to write it down.
- Toddlers (mobility-usually age 3): Water or sand tables for sensory activities, tables for art projects as well as meals and snacks, a variety of manipulative toys suitable for small hands that cannot be choked on, a gross motor area, blocks, cars, baby dolls or other pretend play toys. A variety of books and comfortable places for children to “read”. Places to wash hands and facilities for diapered children as well as children who are potty training.
- Preschoolers (3-school age): Essentially the same as a toddler room although manipulative are more advanced, smaller and more numerous, there is more opportunity for pretend play, and more area for structured activities such as circle times or science experiments.
- Planning. Do teachers work from lesson plans or a curriculum? Even with the smallest of children, having a plan is critical. If there is no plan, children are not being introduced to new experiences and the center is likely “stuck in a rut” of what is easiest for them to do.
- Teacher Training. Early childhood education degrees are becoming increasingly popular. While most states do not require preschool or daycare teachers to have a college education, looking for a center where teachers hold an early childhood education degree (or similar) is important. However, I do suggest looking experience as well. There are a lot of great preschool teachers who have been teaching for decades that are just as qualified, if not more so, than the college-educated teachers.
- Teacher-Child Interactions. Unfortunately, teachers will be on their best behavior when parents are around (aren’t we all when someone else is around?). So, most of the time you won’t be able to see exactly how the teacher might interact with your child when you’re not present. However, do keep an eye on interactions when you’re there. Do you see teachers calming dealing with behavior issues or problems? Are touches gentile and caring? Red flags would be teachers yelling or screaming at children, saying hurtful things, or touching a child roughly. If they’re willing to do these things in front of you, what are they willing to do when you’re not there? This is a great place to use your instincts. If the provider just doesn’t seem to interact well with children, seems unhappy to be there, or is awkward with the children, it’s probably best to look elsewhere.
- Communication. What sort of a system is set up for communicating with parents? Often times (great) teachers are too busy with other children when you walk in to talk with each parent individual on a daily basis. Is there a way for the teacher to communicate with you even if they are busy? Is there a note home or a board displaying what the children did that day? Are you able to know when your child slept, ate, and was diapered? What about during times of potty training or other transitions? A great center will always have a way to communicate.
- Quality of materials. From toys to dishes, playground equipment to cots, good quality daycares are going to insure that their facilities house great products. Not necessarily expensive items, but well kept items. Toys will not be broken or damaged. Things that are not in working quality will be replaced regularly for children’s safety. Something can be old, but in great condition. Once again, this can be a sign of pride in the center itself.
The following are some things that are NOT determining factors in your child’s daycare quality. They may seem great on the surface, but when you dig a bit deeper they are not sufficient clues.
The name. Simply because it’s a “child development center” or a super cute name like “Susie’s Sweet Lambs” doesn’t mean it’s any good. There are little to no regulations on child care facility names. Someplace may call themselves a “daycare” but in fact offer a much more enriching environment than a “child development center”.
- Using fancy terminology. There are a lot of politically correct terms floating around early childhood education these days. Phrases like “developmentally appropriate”, “engaging”, “circle time”, “literacy rich”, etc. come out of the mouth of many early childhood “educators”. However, it’s best to judge a center on what they’re doing rather than if they use fancy words when you’re getting a tour or interviewing. See activities that are engaging and appropriate for your child’s age group happening is a much better determining factor than the tour guide telling you they happen, when in all actuality they’re only occurring on a sporadic occasion.
- Location. I say this cautiously. If your daycare is in a strip mall, a home, or a fancy new stand-alone facility….any of those locations can be great. It just matters what is on the INSIDE of the facility. It can be in a brand new, state of the art building but hold no other standard true. So, don’t be blinded by the smell of fresh paint.
- Cost & size. The small in-home daycare down the street that cost a third of the price as the large center down the block can provide just as good of care and education. The people and the overall environment are much more important than the cost or size of the facility you choose.
There you have it. Some important things to look for when you’re trying to decide on a daycare for your little one. What questions do you have about looking for a quality day care?