For as much chatter as there is on the internet about kids, a few important topics get almost no air time. Wisdom about raising teenagers is one of them, and in my experience, daycare is another.
It’s not as “sparkly” of a topic as gift picks or product faves, and it’s not as universal as thoughts on feeding a toddler, but it is without a doubt one of the most important things to “get right” as a parent – and thus, is a topic worthy of sharing on if my experiences might be helpful for one of you. If you’re a new parent or perhaps not even pregnant yet (but looking ahead to the day when you are), and daycare is part of your care plan, this post is for you, with love from me!
Specifically, this post is for those who have decided daycare is the right fit for their family, and are now trying to decide between centers. Over the last three years we’ve toured 9 different schools and had children enrolled in three – a nationwide franchise with traditional hours, a local company with several sites in the Triangle and traditional hours, and an independent Montessori with school-based hours (8:30-4:30). We’ve had great experiences with all of them, and through the searches to land at these three, have identified what to look for to know if a school will be a great fit for our family.
Of course, everyone has different priorities when it comes to care for their kids, and the things we care about most might not match up with your priorities. As an important first step before you begin your search, I’d take some time to write out what matters most to you so you can judge each center against your criteria. Looking up the state rating, if your state has one, is a good place to start, but there is so much more to take into consideration!
Here are a few of the things we look for in a daycare/preschool, in no particular order:
1. When we visit, the first thing we talk about should be what we’re looking for in care for our child. In nine visits over the last few years, only three have done this — at any point in the conversation. Asking what we care about tells me they’re interested in building a relationship, that they’re invested in my individual child, and that they’re not simply going to provide a one-size-fits-all service.
2. Experience over degrees. This is a tip from my Mom, who was the director of a preschool for sixteen years. She always said she would hire a teacher with experience and passion over someone with a degree any day. I particularly think this is important for a teacher in an infant or toddler classroom, where I’d much rather have someone caring for my baby who’s raised their own babies and has years of experience to draw on than someone fresh out of school.
3. Management that treats their teachers well. If I’m paying more than my mortgage for childcare, I would like to know that not only am I thrilled with the care my child is receiving, but that her teachers are also being taken care of. For basic human reasons, yes, but also because well-compensated teachers who feel they are valued will be happier, which will lead them to do their job well, and will lead to less turnover, leading to a more stable environment for my child and for communication. To gauge this, you can ask outright what benefits their teachers receive, and of course you can also ask how long the teachers have been with the school.
4. Cozy rooms (balanced with cleanliness). Heck yes I understand the need to make it as easy as possible to keep classrooms clean and germ-free — but I also don’t want to feel like my child is spending the day in a linoleum box. Both June’s and Shep’s infant classrooms had plenty of soft surfaces, pleasing decor, and cozy nooks while also keeping them safe and healthy.
5. Lack of technology. It’s funny – most centers advertise the technology incorporated into the curriculum as a selling point, but it should come as no surprise that I was looking for the exact opposite. June is now at a Montessori school where there are no screens of any kind, and it’s heaven.
6. A commitment to outside time. Almost all schools have outside time every day (I think it’s a law in North Carolina!), but what do their outdoor spaces look like? What emphasis do they place on it? What are the kids doing outside? We were particularly looking for playgrounds that had natural surfaces – grass, mulch, etc. – which was surprisingly hard to find.
7. Flexible hours. With most traditional center hours (7am-6pm), we were paying for far more hours than we needed. We were SO happy to find June’s current school, which, among a million other wonderful things, allows us to pay for only the hours we need. This set-up seems to be rare, but is so worth seeking out if you’re in the same situation!
8. Teachers we love in the classroom we’ll be in. As long as the school is generally decent, in my opinion, the teachers matter more than the “brand” or experience of the school at large. The teachers are the ones caring for your child every day, and the people with whom you’ll be communicating. You should feel totally confident in who they are and their ability to love on your child. Yes, staff can turnover, and you’ll get new teachers as your child grows – but you can always reevaluate, if necessary, at that point.
And that leads me to a final piece of encouragement: when choosing a daycare (or, really, any kind of school), make the best decision for now, not forever. If you realize your child needs something different, or your priorities change, you can always switch schools. The right school at six months might not be the right school at three years, and that’s okay! You’re not making a decision for all of time – just for right now. You’re doing a great job, mama :)
Any tips to add, friends? How did you know your childcare was the one? Have any other childcare questions you’d like me to answer?
P.S. We lucked out with getting June into an infant program immediately because the center had recently opened – and then were shocked when we were 16th on a waiting list for Shep in April, for a November spot!! You do need to start your search early in most markets – I’d recommend in the second trimester.