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By Liza Finlay | Today's Parent – Thu, 24 Jan, 2013
Selecting the right daycare is important - for your child's growth, and for your own peace of mind. Here are a few things to keep to take note of when in the market for a new caregiver.
Provincial laws stipulate the maximum number of children allowable per staff member - in Ontario, for example, it's three staffers for every ten babies under 18 months; one for every five toddlers 18 to 30 months; and one for every eight children aged 30 months to five years. However, some experts estimate that breaches of the staff-to-child ratio represent up to one-fifth of all licensing violations. That's consistent with the experiences of many parents who discover too late that their daycare uses somewhat creative accounting.
A study, conducted at Rutgers University in New Jersey, links early learning and development with teacher qualifications. Specifically, the study found that three- and four-year-olds learn the most - socially, emotionally and cognitively - when their teachers have four-year degrees and specialized in early childhood education (ECE). These teachers are also more affectionate with children in their care and are less likely to punish them.
According to provincial regulations, licensed daycares are required to feed all children balanced midday meals and nutritious snacks; they must also post all menus in a public place. Mom Alice Holland*, found that the posted menus alternately glossed over or glorified the food actually served. "The menu would read 'chicken'," says Holland, "but, in fact, the kids were served frozen chicken fingers. 'Granola' was really artificially sweetened granola bars."
Studies have found that 35 to 40 percent of kids allergic to peanuts will experience and accidental peanut ingestion at some point within a three- to four-year period. Because a growing number of Canadian children have life-threatening nut allergies, many public and private daycares voluntarily adopt peanut-free policies. But that may not mean the facility is peanut-proofed.
Daycares need to have a minimum amount of play area for each child - in Ontario, for example, it's 5.6 square metres (60 square feet) of fenced outdoor play area per child, and 2.8 metres (30 square feet) for indoor play. But how frequently that space is used is left to the discretion of childcare providers.
The mere existence of a TV in a daycare setting can be a warning sign. The "electronic babysitter' is often used to provide relief for overworked staff .
While the incidences of verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of a caregiver are extremely rare, raised voices, public scoldings and those ubiquitous time outs aren't so uncommon. Make surprise visits to see their caregiver in action and ask for written documentation of discipline policies and, if no such documents exist, test the staff's tactics using as many real examples as possible. If the centre's principles are inconsistent with your own, you've got a problem. If the daycare seems unwilling to divulge or discuss them, well, that could be a sign of even bigger problems to come.
When Marcy Barbaro registered her one-year-old daughter with a public daycare, she expected daily reports on how Santana spent her day - her small triumphs, her frustrations. She didn't get them. In fact, Barbaro finds she has to quiz the caregivers with specific questions to get the information she craves - like what other children her daughter bonded with, what new skills she learned, what made her laugh or cry. "I think feedback from caregivers is essential," says Barbaro. "The fact is, they're there and we're not. As a mother, that's hard enough to swallow without feeling you have to beg to find out what made you child smile today or what new skills she's developing."
Look for a minimum of seven key "learning areas", including sand, water, art, books, blocks, puzzles and games and drama (dress-up). The next step, is to ensure that the activities at each area are age-appropriate. A three-year-old seen playing with toys more suitable for a 12-month-old is a sign that perhaps the facility isn't upgrading, or even rotating toys, the way they should.
Culturally, religiously and racially diverse children populate most daycares and while it may be unreasonable to expect caregivers to cater to each child individually, parents do have a right to expect sensitivity. That includes encouraging children to share their own stories and avoiding exclusive language. For many parents and education experts alike, reading inclusive books, feeding varied foods and offering diverse dolls and dress-up clothes isn't just a daycare's duty, it is a primary step in raising respectful, broad-minded children.