Finding the right daycare for your child can be like finding the right spouse: sometimes you have to date a few frogs until you find a prince. All daycares talk a good talk and boast about how great they are at your initial walk-through, but not all deliver what they promise.
I had to take my kids to six different daycares and preschools to find the right fit for my family. Hopefully you can learn in 5 minutes what took me 5 years to figure out through trial-and-error what really should be considered a great daycare for your children.
5 key signs of a good daycare
A low teacher/child ratio
The most important aspect when considering child care for your infant or toddler is that age 0-3 are the absolute most important developmental years of your child’s life. These are the “make it or break it” years. If your child receives adequate nurturing, physical touch, healthy nutrition, exercise, love and respect during these years, she will avoid a plethora of physical, mental and emotional obstacles for the years to come.
Unfortunately, the majority of daycares for infants and toddlers have such an unbalanced teacher/child ratio that it is impossible for them to give any child the nurturing that they need to thrive. Before your child is walking, try to find a 1:1 or 1:2 ratio (possibly a nanny or family member). Once they are walking, look for a maximum of a 1:6 ratio.
Healthy meals and snacks
What your child eats is just as important as them receiving proper nurturing and love. One daycare my daughter attended was a “big name” daycare, but they served French toast covered in butter and syrup for breakfast, steak fingers for lunch and cookies for snacks.
The nail in the coffin was the fact that they prohibited parents from packing healthy lunches for their kids. Either my kids ate the junk food they served or they didn’t eat at all. You should always be able to bring your own meals, snacks and drinks for your child.
Children are learning, it is not merely a ‘storage unit’
Just because the word “school” is in the name of your daycare, doesn’t mean squat these days. Ask the teachers daily what was taught to your kids, what books were read, worksheets completed, artwork, etc…
Adequate daily exercise
The best daycares know that adequate exercise in children results in more attentive, better behaved and less hyperactive children. The best schools will provide outdoor physical activities morning, noon and afternoon (3 times per day).
Between the ages of 0-5 years, 99% of brain development is done while a child is sleeping – not while they are awake. Sleep is critical for children.
Some daycare centers skip naps or they only require a short rest period. Make sure the daycare you choose requires at least 1-2 hours daily of sleep time.
You might be thinking “Finding a school with a low teacher/student ratio, healthy food options, adequate exercise, very educational and that requires naps is too good to be true. This school cannot exist!” Well, it took me six tries, a lot of shopping around and a lot of frustration, but I did find a lovely preschool for my children that has met these requirements.
Important questions to ask any child care provider before you enroll your child
- Are you licensed?
- Do you have insurance for accidents?
- What do you serve for meals, snacks and drinks?
- Can I bring outside food for my child?
- How often do the kids play outside?
- What is the teacher/child ratio?
- How long is your nap time?
- Can you show me some of the class work some of the current students have completed?
- Can my child come for 2 hours this Friday to check out your school?
- Can I drop in any time to observe the class?
4 traps to avoid when daycare shopping
- Don’t take another parent’s word on how good a school is (even mine!). What works (and is important) to your family may not be the same standards for your dearest neighbor next door. Several parents in my neighborhood swore by the local private church school, so I enrolled my kids. Soon after, the school demanded that paperwork be signed that gave the school permission to spank my kids. Then I learned that the school snacks consisted of Coke floats and rice crispy treats – which were not posted on the school menu. When I asked the other parents about these issues, they all signed the paperwork without reading it and none of them had paid any attention to the poor nutritional options the school was serving.
- Just because a daycare center is accredited, that doesn’t always mean it has good leadership, good teachers or has high standards for nutrition or daily exercise.
- Just because a daycare center is a “household name” or nationwide chain, doesn’t mean it’s good.
- Just because a daycare center is new or has fancy decour, doesn’t mean it’s better than the older schools with more modest trimmings.
A few more tips:
- Use your gut instinct. If your gut says “There is something about this place I just don’t like” then listen to this instinct and take action.
- Pop in at random times to see what your daycare is really doing when parents aren’t around. Most schools turn on the charm at key drop-off and pick-up times, but if you swing by after your lunch break you might see a different picture (same rule of thumb is for nannies and babysitters).
- Avoid schools who have pricey “enrollment fees” (no more than $150). The reason schools sometimes have high enrollment fees is so three months into your stay at this school when you realize the school has over-promised and under-delivered, you will say to yourself, “I can’t change schools because I just paid that hefty non-refundable fee.” This is the school’s way of keeping you around.
- Years ago I remember a mother telling me, “The reason God makes mothers be pregnant for 9 longs months is to give us time to plan and save!” The smartest decision a family can make during mom’s pregnancy is to save, save, save money. Why? Every penny you save will give you the freedom to stay home with your newborn and not feel the pressure to rush back to work. Every day with your newborn counts. Avoid the pressure to splurge on fancy crib bedding and expensive baby gadgets. Shop for the basics at yard sales or ask friends for hand-me-downs.
Keep in mind that your child may spend more time at daycare than any other place in the world during the most important developmental times of his life. Choose wisely. Be willing to pay a bit more if the care is substantially better. And don’t hesitate for a second if you see or sense that your child is not receiving the proper care she needs and deserves.