Choosing a Preschool or Child Care Center for Your Child (page 2)
What’s the best age for a child to start preschool? What’s the difference between a preschool and a child care center? Does my child need to attend preschool, or can she go directly to kindergarten? These are questions parents of preschool-age children face whether they work outside the home or not. Working parents must confront these questions and make a choice from many different options of care. Some parents have a relative who is able to care for their children, but is this the best choice? Or is it better for children to spend some time in a group setting where they can learn social skills?
Preschool or Child Care Center?
The only difference between high quality preschools and high quality child care centers may be the hours they operate. Child care centers generally are open for at least 10 hours a day, accommodating the schedules of parents who work full-time. Traditionally, preschools operate for a shorter time, some as short as 3 hours, offering activities and play in the morning only. Many preschools now offer wrap-around hours, accommodating parents’ needs in the same way that child care centers do. Generally, preschools charge different rates according to the length of time a child spends there each day. Some preschools offer part-week programs. Another option is family child care. In this setting, a child care provider accepts children into her own home and provides play and activities.
Whether you're looking for a full-or part-time program, it’s essential to look for quality. There are many programs available but not all offer the high quality of care that every parent wants for their child. Check with your local Early Learning Coalition (you can find their contact information online or in the phone book) and ask for a list of accredited programs. Accreditation confirms that programs maintain a number of standards, some of which are quite rigorous and difficult to achieve. There are a number of accrediting agencies; the national ones generally have the highest standards. Check with other parents to find preschools and child care centers that are well-respected in your community.
Things to Look For
Spend at least a half hour in each preschool or center you visit. The first time you visit you may want to go without your child to avoid confusing him. Look at all the classrooms, but spend longer in the classroom your child will be in. Do the children appear to be happy? Are the teachers talking with the children? Is the tone of conversation polite and respectful? Are the children busily engaged in a number of different activities? Are there enough toys for all the children? Are the toys and materials in good repair and are the children allowed to select their own play things? Are there plenty of books available and are educational materials, such as posters, labels, charts, etc., displayed on the walls? Is the classroom clean and well maintained?
Questions to Ask
It will be difficult to talk to the teacher if the children are in class. You may wish to make an appointment to talk at naptime, or at the end of the day. If the director is available, there are some questions you may wish to ask. What are the qualifications of the teachers? Research tells us that the higher the qualifications, the better the education children will receive. How long have the teachers been working at the school? Ahigh turnover of staff usually means lower quality education for the children. Since the number of children with each adult affects the quality of education, you will want to ask about the ratios of teachers to children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children allows the following maximum ratios in its accredited centers:
Infants & Toddlers 1 to 4
Twos 1 to 6
Threes & Fours 1 to 10
The State of Florida allows the following ratios:
Infants 1 to 4
Toddlers 1 to 6
Twos 1 to 11
Threes 1 to 15
Fours 1 to 20
Is This a Good Fit for Your Child?
No matter how good the program, it must fit your child’s needs. If your child is comfortable only in small groups you will want to choose a program with small classes, or a home child care situation. If she loves to play outdoors, the size and quality of the playground, as well as the length of time spent outside will be very important to you. Be sure to take your child along when you have narrowed your choice down to one or two programs. Observe how comfortable she appears in each setting, and how the caregivers respond to her.
Start Looking Early
The best programs may have waiting lists, especially for infants and toddlers, since good quality care is in great demand. You may need to get on a waiting list as much as a year ahead of the time you need to begin care.
Give Lots of Support
hen your child is ready, try to ease him into the setting slowly and with lots of support. Stay with him the first day, leave him for an hour or two on the second day, and gradually increase the time he stays by himself. Expect a few tears at first, but be concerned if these are prolonged and continue more than a few days. Don’t be surprised after a few weeks if your child is reluctant to leave right away when you come pick him up. In the best child care programs, children are well cared-for, content, interested, and they bond with their caregivers. Be proud that you have chosen a great program where your child is secure and happy. Good quality preschool and child care give children an advantage once they begin formal schooling.
If You Decide to Stay Home With Your Child
You can give your child the social experiences and creative, quality educational activities that preschools offer, even if you are a stay-at-home parent. By joining play groups, attending storytime at the local library, taking your child to the museum and the park, she can learn the social and early literacy skills she needs to do well in school.
Whatever your choice, be an involved and concerned parent, and your child will benefit for a lifetime from your love and support.
Reprinted with the permission of the Center for Parent Involvement. © 1999, Tampa, Florida.
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