In the day-to-day give and take of good infant/toddler child care, children and their caregivers relate in a way that looks much like a dance, with the child leading, the caregiver picking up the rhythm and following. When a caregiver reads and responds to the young child’s messages with sensitivity, the child’s hunger to be understood is satisfied. The conviction that “I am someone who is paid attention to” becomes part of the infant or toddler’s identity. Doctor J. Ronald Lally
It’s a wonder I haven’t tackled the topic of what to consider when choosing childcare for infants and toddlers before, because it’s one parents often ask me about. Part of the reason I tend to shy away from this subject is because I have a bias against center based or group childcare for children under the age of three, partly because I know firsthand how woefully inadequate many programs are at truly meeting the unique needs of babies and toddlers.
As Doctor Ronald Lally of the Program For Infant Toddler Care says, “Simply put, a preschooler has already formed a pretty solid sense of identity, with definite likes, dislikes, inclinations and attitudes, but an infant or toddler is forming his or her sense of identity. Part of what the infant gets from the caregiver is a sense of who that caregiver is; this sense is incorporated into the infant’s own definition of self. The process of forming a strong positive identity should occur in a setting that offers security, protection, and intimacy. It doesn’t happen in “school”; it happens in a continuing relationship with a caregiver.”
This is not to say that group based center care for our youngest can’t be done well, because it can. The Santa Cruz Toddler Center, Little Learners Lodge, and The Gazebo, are three centers that I personally know of that provide ideal environments and exemplary relationship based care that allows infants and toddlers to thrive.
I understand it isn’t a possibility for many families, whether due to personal choice, family structure, or financial considerations, to stay home with their babies, and/or to hire a nanny to provide in-home care until they are three years of age or so. In the event that a family chooses or requires care outside of the home, I encourage parents to consider small home based family childcare centers, as well as larger centers. Little River School Online wrote a very informative and helpful post describing the different options parents have when it comes to choosing childcare, outlining some of the pros and cons of the different choices, that you may want to take a look at: Finding The Right Child Care Fit. Ultimately, it’s not the type of care that is as important, as it is the quality of care.
In a chapter of Your Self Confident Baby entitled How to Select the Right Child Care, Magda Gerber wrote, “Parents have often asked me if it is detrimental for a child brought up following RIE philosophy to be in a child care situation that doesn’t follow it. Not necessarily. I strongly believe good is good. Finding a kind, gentle person who pays attention to your child is the important thing. Honesty is a good quality too.”
The components that I consider essential to quality center based infant toddler care include the following:
1) Number one, and most important in my book, is looking for caregivers or teachers who are patient, kind, good observers and listeners, and who seem to really enjoy being with babies and toddlers. A professional caregiver or teacher will possibly hold a degree in early childhood development or education, and at the very least, will actively pursue ongoing personal learning and professional development opportunities.
2) Next is primary care giving (defined as one or two special people who care for and know your child well); and small group size. How small? Ideally, there will be one caregiver for every three babies 15 months and younger, with a total group size of no more than eight (I prefer 6.), and one caregiver for every four toddlers 15 months to three years of age with a total group size of no more than twelve. (I prefer eight.)
3) Continuity of care is also important. This means that the same caregiver(s) care for your child over the course of their time at the center. There should be a predictable, but flexible routine in place that allows for responsive and individualized care, and the environment should allow for and encourage lots of free play and exploration, choice and autonomy, both indoors and out.
4) I wish that I didn’t even have to include this next statement, but observation and experience make it necessary: Direct teaching, academics, and screen technology of any kind should have no place at all in child care settings for babies and toddlers. Magda Gerber talked about the importance of the “caregiving as the curriculum” meaning that for babies and toddlers, everything about their day is a learning opportunity. Teachers should follow your baby’s lead and and meet individual needs during diapering, feeding, and sleeping times. Schedules should be flexible to accommodate individual preferences. Babies and toddlers don’t need planned curriculum, they need responsive, attentive caregivers, who take the time to build relationships, provide predictable routines, and the opportunity to explore freely. For more on this topic see ‘Round The Clock Routines written by RIE Associate Ruth Anne Hammond.
So, how to gauge if a particular center or setting is the right one for you and your child?
1) Start by defining what is most important to you, and ask friends and other parents to share their recommendations and experiences.
2) Do an on-line search to find local centers, and spend some time looking at their web sites. Your local resource and referral center may be a good place to start, and below, I’ve included an article that allows you to use the National Association of Early Childhood Education’s (NAEYC) tool to search for accredited centers (both home based and larger centers) in your area. Janet Lansbury also has a free community board for those of you looking to connect with RIE or RIE inspired or compatible caregivers and centers.
3) Don’t skip this step! Call and visit each center you are considering, and spend time observing the teachers who will care for your child. If possible, visit at least once on your own and then again with your child. Ask lots of questions (mostly of the director, as teachers will be focused on the children in their care).
4) Most importantly, pay attention to your gut reactions as you observe, because if it doesn’t “feel right” to you for any reason, it probably isn’t!
Beyond basic health and safety considerations, here are some things other parents have said were important to them:
“Enough time to accompany your child in the transition time. Enough outdoor time regardless of the weather. In the end you must like it and trust the teachers, so your child can feel safe and happy there.”
“I know that I am looking for the following qualities: a “non-academic” play-based place, staffed by caring, positive-minded, joyful people who aim to raise kids with intrinsic motivation and who don’t “Good job!” everything to death. People who believe in firm, clear boundaries and who don’t socialize kids to perform and to please. Most importantly, people who believe that there is no right or wrong way to play. A no-media environment, healthy organic foods, outdoor space, and use of non-toxic home products and cleaning materials and I would be one very, very happy lady! I am finding that these things are not exactly easy to find!”
“Outdoor space and an absence of flash cards, or drill-kill type activities would be wonderful, too. I would also look for a place that has routines and structures in place with plenty of time for free exploration and play within the day. Racial and cultural diversity is also important. Perhaps I am too selective?” (Not at all!)
“I would say to look for rooms that are set up to encourage independent exploration. Look for teachers who are not hovering, yet are available, helpful and compassionate”
“Look for a place that will let you sit in a corner and observe – it’s the little parts of the day that make the whole. Look for respect in how the teachers treat the children, listen for reflections in how they speak to them, and watch for lots of creative, open-ended play. Make sure to ask the staff what they believe about children – their answers will speak volumes!”
“Good ratios (number of adults per child), experienced respectful teachers, lots of open ended play objects, daily outdoor time, hands on activities offered daily. Trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t right for you.”
“Priority on time outside in all weather, gender non-specific toys, lack of branded toys, plenty of books in good shape. Clean, welcoming space that your child finds inviting and understands. Caregivers who care for themselves, communicate clearly. A routine (not necessarily a schedule) that allows for both structured and unstructured time. Consistent adults with current vaccinations and background checks. Healthy food, shared in community. Clear professional policies.”
A good center will be licensed and may be accredited by the National Association for The Education of Young Children or another accrediting organization (although this alone does not guarantee quality), will have a clear, written philosophy of care, an open door policy (meaning parents are welcome and encouraged to visit and observe at any time), and will strive for, and put a priority on open daily written and verbal communication between caregiver/center and home.
Many quality programs include a parent education and support component which may include daily or weekly notes and/or observations regarding your child, monthly newsletters, a lending library, monthly parent meetings, social gatherings such as potlucks or community work days, monthly adult only meetings on “hot” parenting topics, parent/infant classes, home visits from teachers, meetings with teachers and/or directors to discuss a child’s development and progress and answer parent questions, a parent handbook, a facebook page or web site with a blog and/or community board, and more. It’s important that there be two way communication between family and caregiver/center. Quality programs will offer their teachers and staff ongoing professional education and support opportunities, as well.
Following are links to a few more resources that may be helpful to you as you begin your search:
- How To Find The Best Day Care (Includes the NAEYC Search Tool)
- NAEYC Tips For Choosing
- Matching Your Infant or Toddler’s Style to The Right Child Care Setting
- Tips and Tools On Childcare from Zero to Three (A Plethora of Links From Trusted Sources)
- Choosing Childcare (Includes A Great List of Questions to Ask Teachers/Caregivers)
Additionally, the books Your Self Confident Baby, and One, Two, Three The Toddler Years both have chapters that distill the most important tips and considerations for parents searching for the right care for their baby or toddler. It’s not an easy task, but it is possible to find care for your baby that feels good and works for your family, and it’s worth it to start early and do your research in order to find the best fit.
One last note: I strongly urge parents, teachers, caregivers, or anyone who cares about infants and toddlers to become an advocate for quality family services, policies, and childcare. All families, and all babies and toddlers deserve access to quality and affordable services and support. An easy way to become informed and active is to join a group such as For Our Babies, which is a nonprofit organization started by Ronald Lally and Peter Mangione which advocates for quality childcare and:
1) Prenatal health care coverage for all families, regardless of income, including home-based support and counseling during pregnancy.
2) Affordable intervention services for at-risk pregnancies.
3) Paid leave for parents for the first nine months of their child’s life.
4) Affordable visits to the homes of all newborns for the first two years that include guidance by professionals trained in parenting and healthy development, along with counseling on early emotional, social, intellectual, linguistic, and perceptual/motor development.
5) Affordable developmental screenings to identify physical and behavioral needs, with referral to affordable help when needed.
6) Affordable services for children with identified special needs.
Check it out today!
I hope that this post will be helpful to you in thinking about your options, and defining what is most important when choosing care for your baby or toddler. Further, I invite you to share your questions, experiences, and tips with others ( if you’ve been through this process) in the comment section below.