Recognizing quality child care

When looking for child care for the first time, it can be hard to know what to look for and ask about. You'll need to find care you can afford and that covers the hours you need to work, of course. But you also need to find care that's good for your child and that you trust. Research into child care quality has identified a handful of key factors that you can use to weigh the quality of your child care options.

• Child:adult ratio (the number of children per adult in a child care arrangement). This ratio is important because it has a direct impact on how much individual attention your child receives and how well his needs are met. Most experts feel that one family child care provider should care for no more than six children (a ratio of 6:1), and no more than two of those children should be under the age of 15 months. In child care centers, the recommended ratio for children under the age of 15 months is 3:1, and should never be more that 4:1.

• Group size. In general, babies and young children do better in small groups. So no matter how many adults are on hand, the total number of children grouped together for care is important. Experts recommend that infants be cared for in groups of eight children or fewer, with an appropriate number of caregivers.

• The people who give the care. Whether they're in homes or centers, children need warm, caring, responsive, knowledgeable adults to make them feel safe and to create an environment that's fun and invites learning. Look for caregivers who genuinely love to be with young children and do this work by choice, who get down on the floor to play with the children, who respond to the needs of each child in their care, and who have energy for lots of inventive activities. These characteristics might come from a background as a parent, from training in child development or early childhood education, from practice and work with children, or from a combination of the three.

• Educational environment. Look for a provider with clear ideas about how children will learn while in their care—and who recognizes the value of play in children's learning. Your child may not take full advantage of this learning environment until he's a little older, but you want it to be available when he's ready. Your child should have an opportunity to engage in a variety of activities (from games to music and from quiet activities to noisy ones), to try out new skills in a safe environment, and to act out fantasies through dramatic play (with toys and dress-up props that encourage make-believe play).

• Parent involvement. Research has shown that quality child care depends on parents and caregivers working closely together. Look for a provider who shares information with parents every day about what's happening in child care, who listens to parents and respects their opinions and ideas, and who makes parents feel welcome when they drop in.

• Discipline. Be sure you find a provider who is skilled in helping children learn self-control and self-discipline. Guidance and discipline should be applied in a positive way that helps the child. Rules should be clear and fairly enforced.

• The physical space. If you're looking for care outside your home, look for a space that is safe for children, that is organized so that children know where things are and can reach what they need, that offers smaller private spaces where children can be away from the group sometimes, and where children have a variety of soft places to sit and rest.

• Continuity of care. Children do better with a stable set of adults in their lives. Look for a caregiver who intends to provide care for several years, or for a center with low staff turnover.

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