The last 17 years that I worked outside the home it was as both an early educator and an early education administrator. The first eight of those years occurred at two separate not-for-profit childcare centers, working with low income and at-risk children in one and the children of corporate employees in another. In those two centers I formed the basis for how I teach, and I formed a strong opinion on what a quality childcare center looks like.
When my teenage daughter applied to a local childcare center for an after school job, she didn’t ask for my expertise—I think because she knows I’m particular in what makes a strong school, and she wanted to work somewhere close to high school that paid well and where she could walk if she didn’t have a ride, without my opinions on whether or not it was the perfect place for her to learn the basics.
While I didn’t get the chance to tell her what to look for, I do give her pointers now and then for how to make her own experience at the center better. How to serve her clients better, and how to keep her sanity with nine toddlers running around a rumpus room.
Since it is my area of expertise, though, I’m willing to share with you what I would have told my daughter, because it’s the same thing I would have told any prospective parent looking for childcare. These are qualities beyond curriculum and licensing, which are both essential, too, but which are questions for the tour as opposed to things you will visibly see at a first glance.
10 Things I Look For In A Quality Childcare Center
1. Cleanliness. This seems like a no-brainer, but cleanliness doesn’t only mean clean surfaces. Kids make messes. I spent several years as a lead toddler teacher, and I can tell you if a toddler isn’t making a mess, something is probably wrong. They dump, knock down, pull around, and throw toys. We work on getting them to stop that, but they do it. So I don’t mean the room should be free of toys. But the surfaces of the tables should be clean, the floor shouldn’t have crumbs, and the faces of the children should be wiped free of dirt (every kid gets a runny nose in the winter. If you see runny noses that are being wiped all over faces with grubby hands, then it’s a problem.)
2. Happiness. You might find a few crying children—again, especially in toddlers or infants, where separation anxiety is at a premium—but overall, children should be playing and engaged. Teachers should smile at children. They shouldn’t look stressed out! A stressed out teacher means stressed out kids, so keep your eye out for teachers who look like they enjoy their jobs.
3. New items. Yes, over the years, toys get wear and tear. But if the majority of the toys, books, and equipment is old, you may be getting yourself into a center that isn’t willing to put any of its profit back into the school.
4. Teacher Bios. If a school doesn’t have their teacher bios listed somewhere, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad school; but it could mean that they have a lot of teacher turnover (when teachers are replaced often) and that doesn’t make for a comforting environment for children. If you don’t see teacher biographies (that list where they went to school and how much schooling they’ve had), ask the question—“What are your teachers’ qualifications, and how much turnover do you have?”
5. Happy Parents! You have walking references right there in front of you if you visit at drop off or pick up time. If more than two parents are coming in and leaving with a frown, it’s a red flag for me that parents aren’t liking what they see.
6. Conversations Between Children and Between Teachers and Children. Children learn the ins and outs of social interaction by having strong role models. Teachers asking questions or answering them shows you they’re providing that.
7. Activities! I can’t think of any time but rest time when an early childhood center shouldn’t have some sort of activity going on. Even during diapering and potty time, children are usually either reading a story or setting up their own nap mats. But kids just running around a classroom with no one to guide them and no activity to engage them spells disaster—most accidents happen when there is no offered activity, even if it’s just one teacher singing songs with them.
8. A Friendly Face at the Front Desk. This may not seem to matter—I mean, that person at the front desk may not even ever go in the classroom. But chances are they will at least cover a break, and if they do, you want someone who is going to be just as good as the teachers to be with your child. Also, you’ll generally have to deal with the front desk at some point—whether to go over a payment, ask a question after your child’s teacher has left for the day, or turn in a form that’s due. You’ll want to know that the person you’re dealing with outside the classroom is as helpful and competent as those in the classroom.
9. Playground Supervision and Interaction. There’s a childcare center near me that I pass every time I go to the convenience store. I don’t know anything else about them, but I know that every time I pass them on the playground, the teachers are actively engaged with the children, and are standing, thus available to help any child who falls on playground equipment. This to me speaks of a school where the teachers have been briefed on child safety, and who take it seriously.
10. Process Art. This is a picky one, I admit, but one for which I’m a stickler. Process art is art where children get to simply explore the medium they’re using—so opposed to a nice neat handprint the teacher held to the paper, there’s finger-paint all over it where the child explored the sensory feel of the paint. Or instead of a cut-out of a sheep, older children were encouraged to draw their own sheep. “The process is more important than the product.” Process art allows a child to expand their horizons, to learn new textures and new ways of using old media. It develops imagination and motor skills, and can be a science skill for young children.
The bottom line is you can see these things at a quick glance, so if you look around as you tour a prospective school you can deduce whether or not it’s up to your own standards. Some of my top ten might be different from yours; but overall, this list will give you a good starting point of what to look for.
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