What to look for when choosing a childcare centre

There are many online resources to help you navigate the search for childcare. I've included links to some of these but my aim is to provide you with an insider’s perspective of what to look for when selecting the best centre for your family. I will also explain some of the lesser known and perhaps less obvious practices that are trademark of high quality providers like Mission Australia Early Learning (MAEL).

Which centre will suit your family?

There are a variety of services available so it's important to understand what the differences are. No two childcare services are the same. Ever. There are many different day care settings to choose from such as long day care, preschool, and family day care. There are not-for-profit, private and corporate centres. There are also many differences in terms of service offerings, and quality. Once you know what type of service your family needs, then you might also want to know how to identify a good day-care.

Things to consider:

  • The practicalities such as convenience and location; operating hours and weeks; cost; centre provisions, facilities and size
  • What role the centre will play for your family. Will you want to belong to a community and get involved in their programs or will the day-care just be a place to entrust with your child where you expect your involvement will be limited to drop-off and pick-up times? How do your involvement expectations marry with the expectations that the centre places on families?
  • Your own values, beliefs and ideals. Consider how each centre aligns with your image of childhood, parenting, teaching, learning, loving and living. And what sort of environment and atmosphere you want your child to be in for many hours each week?
  • What is at the heart of the decision-making processes for the centre? Are there investors who seek to drive profits higher to line their own pockets or is it a not-for-profit that reinvests any profits back into centre’s operations? Or are they like MAEL who reinvests in their centres as well as support various social services within their local communities?
  • Children in their early years are very impressionable They are developing their self-image and making sense of the world around them. How do you want them to be influenced? Think about things such as exposure to diversity, equity and social justice issues; your child getting outdoors and amongst the wider community; exposure to nature and the elements; levels of risk taking that you find appropriate; opportunities to be the “big fish” and the “little fish”; exposure to the arts; learning about environmental sustainability.
  • Do you want your child to have access to screens at day care? If so, for how long and for what purpose? Is the use of technology complementing the program or dominating it? Are you paying professional rates for your child to be entertained by a screen?
  • Asking your networks. Word of mouth and personal recommendations are probably the most accurate and influential ways to learn about certain centres, so ask around. Remember to check whether there are any online reviews too. Many early childhood centres have Facebook pages.
  • Search for the centres national assessment and rating on the register of all accredited centres which can be found on the ACECQA (Australian Children’s Education and Care Authority) website plus a range of information related to quality standard indicators.

I strongly advise to spend time investigating as many different services as you can. While you may be extremely busy, the more you see, know and understand about childcare the more likely you are to make a good decision. Looking online at different childcare providers can be a good starting point but don’t be fooled by glossy marketing or be turned off by the more modest attempts that you may discover. It’s important to understand that centres operating under the same provider will have variances regarding their quality, their culture, and their facilities. I highly recommend visiting the centres that interest you. Quality childcare is something that you need to feel.

When you start to visit centres ask plenty of questions

  • Ask about the centre’s National Quality Standards assessment and rating.
  • Seek information about staff retention and turnover. Keep in mind that while the sector generally has low retention rates it is a good sign if most of the staff have been at the centre for over 3 years.
  • Ask about staff qualifications. Are any staff currently studying? You want staff that are engaged in further training and continuous learning beyond the mandatory training requirements. You want staff to be inspired and up to date with current trends and across a variety of perspectives.
  • Most parents know to ask about staff-to-child ratios, which are legally mandated, but also ask about group sizes. Young children respond better to smaller group sizes. Large groups of children particularly in the birth-to-3-year-old age bracket can create stressful environments. Look for smaller group sizes in the younger rooms. Ask questions around strategies to create and maintain calm and peaceful spaces.
  • Ask about the culture of the centre staff. Do they engage with their community? Do staff attend the family/centre events? Does the staff team get together outside of the service? Are there opportunities for cross-centre collaboration and professional networking to allow staff to learn from each other and share ideas like there are at MAEL?
  • Ask whether staff understand attachment theory and brain development and how they put these theories and research into practice.
  • Ask to see the philosophy and ask for the nominated supervisor and/or educators to show you the philosophy in action, to explain and demonstrate how the words on the page translate into their day-to-day practices.
  • Ask to see the policies and guidelines that underpin learning and teaching; supporting children’s social development; and behaviour expectations. Also ask for particular policies such as the grievance policy and the fees policy.
  • Ask about the enrolment process. Are you invited to spend as much time as you feel is required within the centre prior to the first day of official attendance as well as afterwards? How will you feel if the centre doesn’t allow you to spend time there? I believe that as long as you are being helpful, calm, and participating within or alongside the programs and routines then you should feel welcomed. A good centre would make the most of your time there by learning as much about you and your child as possible.
  • If the centre provides meals, ask for a meal plan or weekly menu. Ask whether families are consulted during the meal planning process and how do they cater for children with allergies, intolerances and/or special diets.
  • Take note of the environment. How natural is it or is it mostly artificial? There is a lot of readily available research that recognises the many benefits of children having access to nature.
  • How is the program organised? Do children have options? Can they make choices about how they spend their time? Does the program include a balance of self-directed learning and structured play? Does the centre promote play based learning or maybe they talk about child-centred programs? Can you see evidence of the child at the heart of the planning? Is their evidence of intentional teaching?
  • How is the centre program and the children’s daily experiences shared with their parent/ guardian? How accessible do they make the children’s learning and developmental progress? Do they utilise on-line programming tools such as Storypark? How do they bridge the gap between home and centre? How much parent input does the centre invite from families?

In my professional opinion, the type of facility doesn’t matter so much– of course it needs to be healthy and clean – but at the end of the day it’s not a lovely built centre and fancy equipment that is going to teach and care for your child or comfort them when they are sad. It is all about the staff, and always will be. The first five years of a child’s life are the most formative. And the research shows that for optimum development, children’s basic needs need to be met in stable, responsive and predictable environments where trusting and respectful relationships are fostered.

Practical tips and hints

  • Your whole family should feel a sense of belonging at the centre. Try sitting on the floor to get down as low as the children and stay in one spot watching from a child’s perspective what the day looks, smells, sounds, feels like.
  • Observe how staff interact with the each other, with other families and with all the children. Are they engaging with the children respectfully and making the children their priority? What type of tome and language do the staff use with the children? Do they get down to the children’s level and talk respectfully or do they talk down to them? Do they engage in meaningful conversations with the children or are they mostly firing out instructions and directions to the children?
  • Are the educators really listening while asking the children interesting questions to stimulate the children’s thinking and inspiring their curiosity? Are staff challenging the children’s values and beliefs and taking note of biases stereotypes as they develop?
  • Watch and reflect on the children’s programs. Are all of the children expected to do the same thing at the same time? Are there progressive mealtimes demonstrating respect for the individual child showing an understanding that not all children are hungry at the same time? Are all the children expected to sleep? What if your child doesn’t want to sleep? Or what if your child is tired outside the usual routine sleep time?
  • Become familiar with the Early Years Learning Framework and ask how this is put into practice at the centre.

The most important consideration of all though, is how does your child respond? You know your child better than anyone. This is obviously much harder to gauge if your child hasn’t arrived yet but if they are with you while you are visiting, watch them closely, observe their responses to the space and the people in it. Does the space and do the people invite your child to play, to be confident, to actively explore, and to ask questions? Try your best to see the centre through the eyes of your child.

References

Australian Government Department of Education and Training website

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority

Australian Government MyChild website