Group Child Care Experience
In 1993, approximately 10 million children under the age of five were in need of child care while their mothers worked. The arrangements for child care varied. Just over 3 million children were cared for in their own homes by a relative or nonrelative, while 3.2 million were cared for in the home of a related or unrelated provider. Approximately 48 percent of the children were cared for by relatives, while 52 percent were cared for by nonrelatives. However, the largest single day-care arrangement, used by approximately one-third of the children, is the organized child-care facility, which includes group day-care centers and nursery schools (Casper, 1996).
What are the effects of exposure to day care on children's development, and more specifically on children's play? For the past 30 years, educators and psychologists have put considerable effort into seeking answers to these questions, but simple answers have yet to be discovered. In fact, there is little to report about the overall effects of home-based day care, since arrangements of this type are difficult to study. And even when researchers focus specifically on organized day-care centers, they often find themselves "comparing apples and oranges" because the qualifications of caregivers and their access to material resources are so varied.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that inconsistent and even contradictory findings have emerged from research conducted in child-care centers: The general finding is that exposure to such environments may indeed influence the maturity of children's social interaction and social play, but the influence can be either negative or positive.
On the negative side, extensive group care involvement has been associated with negative affect, displays of aggression, and resistance to adult authority (Clarke-Stewart, 1984, Howes & Olenick, 1986; Phillips, McCartney, & Scarr, 1987). On the positive side, experience in child-care centers is related to advanced levels of social play, characterized by a greater degree of sophistication in children's social interactions (Belsky & Steinberg, 1978; Howes, 1988; McCutcheon & Callhoun, 1976; Phillips, McCartney, & Scan, 1987; Rubenstein & Howes, 1979; Smith & Bain, 1978).
Illustrative of such positive findings were those of Schindler, Moely, and Frank (1987), who looked at the relationship between time spent in day care and social maturity of play in terms of Mildred Parten's (1932) classification system. Children ranging in age from two to five were grouped according to (1) the number of months they had been in day care, and (2) the number of hours a week they spent at a day-care center. It was found that children who had spent and were spending the greatest amount of time in a day-care setting were more likely to engage in socially mature associative play, as well as in constructive play, and less likely to engage in solitary play, onlooker play, or what is termed unoccupied behavior.
Interestingly enough, time spent in day care was not related to the amount of cooperative play observed by these particular researchers, although other researchers (e.g., Howes, 1988) have reported that children who begin day care at an earlier rather than at a later age, such as age one as opposed to age three, engage in more cooperative social pretend play and have an easier time relating to their peers in general.
How can the apparent contradiction between the positive and negative social influences of group child care be explained? Much seems to depend on the quality of the centers themselves. For example, Phillips, McCartney, and Scarr (1987) found that positive social outcomes were most likely to occur when (1) the childcare environment was verbally stimulating, in that adults and children regularly engaged in conversation, (2) the director of the center was relatively experienced in her or his role, and (3) the staff-to-child ratio in the center was high.
In summary, the group child-care experience can enhance social maturity and lead to increasingly sophisticated levels of social interaction and social play. However, the effect depends upon the characteristics of the setting that children are placed in, and, unfortunately, considerable variation exists in the quality of child care in the United States today (Phillips, McCartney, & Scarr, 1987).
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