How to “Look Under the Hood”
The right questions to ask when considering child care options
If you’re stressed about finding the perfect child care program for your new baby, you’re not alone.
With child care waitlists becoming the norm, new parents are under intense pressure to find the very best child care program for their little one—and to find it quickly. But as you call Providers and schedule visits, what should you be looking for to know you’ve found the right fit?
“Many parents have some notion of what they’re looking for in a child care program,” says Linda Schumacher. “But then they go meet a Provider, and they don’t know how to judge the quality of the program. It’s like someone popped the hood of a car and asked me to evaluate the quality of the vehicle. Because I know so little about engines, I’ll probably be distracted by something shiny and ignore what really matters.”
Linda is an early childhood development specialist and a well-known figure among child care professionals in Massachusetts. She ran her own Family Child Care program for years and now is a trainer for the Massachusetts Department of Early Education & Care, facilitating the orientation courses that educators must complete in order to receive a license and open a program.
Linda says it’s similar for new parents. “They know their child and how they want them to be raised, but they’re not experts in childhood development.” As a result, parents can be easily distracted by the obvious elements of a child care program, like the environment. “Some larger child care programs hook people this way,” explains Linda. “The facility is all shiny, the equipment brand new; it’s like the Disney World of child care.” Linda says the environment is certainly important—you want to choose a program that is safe and clean—but those shouldn’t be the only details to draw your attention.
“In my opinion, one of the really special aspects of a Family Child Care program is that you are going to have a face-to-face conversation with the Provider every day,” says Linda. “At some larger programs, there is just a drive-by drop-off and pick-up location, so you don’t establish a personal relationship.”
And Linda says that relationship with the Provider is critical for you and your child. “The Provider is the single most important element of a child care program, and that person will make or break your experience,” Linda says. It doesn’t matter how shiny the space is, how new the toys are, or how many floor-to-ceiling windows you see if the Provider isn’t the right fit for you or your child.”
Does the Provider have a current child care license displayed near the front door? If you have any questions or concerns about the Provider’s qualifications, you can call the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care to request their licensing transaction history.
Is the Provider engaging directly with the kids? Are they getting down on the children’s level to talk and play games?
Does the Provider create a friendly and inviting space? Do they seem to be enjoying themselves?
“I think it’s so important that parents view looking for child care as really looking for a Provider,” Linda adds, “I always say a good Provider could teach in a barn, and they’ll be wonderful. But a poor quality Provider could be in the most avant-garde, expensive classroom, and they’ll still be a lousy teacher.”
After talking with the Provider, parents should look at how the children in the program are interacting and whether they seem to enjoy being in the space. Linda says to especially note:
Are the kids having fun?
Does it look like they enjoy being at the program?
Are the children engaged in play or do they seem bored?
“Of course, there will be some tears and some tantrums,” says Linda. “But, for the most part, are there sounds of happiness in the space? When the Provider is changing diapers or preparing snacks, are they giving the children activities to keep them busy—or maybe singing a group song? The kids should be kept engaged throughout the day.”
The Learning Philosophy
When it comes to a Provider’s child care philosophy, there’s no right answer or hard-and-fast rules—but you want to make sure the program’s approach is one you agree with and feel good about. When you visit the program, talk to the Provider about their philosophy, why they prefer their method, and if it aligns with your family’s priorities.
“When I ran my own program, I offered a mix of learning by play and more structured, ‘classroom like’ activities,” says Linda. “But there’s really no right or wrong option. Some providers believe children learn best through play, so they have open-ended games and problem-solving activities, like puzzles, mazes, and coloring books. The other side of the spectrum is a pre-kindergarten environment, with a defined curriculum and more academic activities.”
With an increase in dual-language speakers opening child care programs, you might also consider a bilingual program! The benefits of learning multiple languages, particularly at a young age, have been well documented, and a dual-language program could offer unique opportunities for your child, both short and long-term.
“A lot of parents don’t understand the rationale behind program policies, so there can be confusion,” says Linda. Some items Linda suggests discussing on your first visit:
What does the program’s napping schedule look like? Can your child bring his or her own blanket or stuffed animal for naptime?
Does the program provide the food for meals and snacks, or is that the parent’s responsibility? “Some children have unique food preferences that providers can’t always accommodate,” says Linda. “So, you should definitely have that conversation upfront.”
How does the program handle holidays? “Providers often have connections with other programs that they can refer children to when closed for a holiday or a sick day,” explains Linda. “But it’s critical to understand your financial obligations when you sign up and to view child care as a contract, not a babysitting agreement.”
Finally, parents should consider the child care program space. “While the physical environment may not be the most critical element when visiting a family child care program for the first time, it’s definitely important,” says Linda. “You want to choose a place where your child will be safe. But keep in mind that you don’t need the latest technology, and it’s okay if some toys are strewn about—that means the children are playing and enjoying themselves.”
In fact, Linda says to make sure there are enough toys available for all the children to stay busy. “Young children are pretty lousy at sharing,” laughs Linda, “so there should be enough toys and books to go around, cozy areas where they can find some quiet time away from the group, and a place to store their personal belongings.”
In the end, though, Linda says it always comes down to a gut feeling. “Most parents will have a strong gut reaction within the first five minutes of visiting a program and meeting a Provider,” says Linda. “Just ask good questions and don’t allow yourself to get distracted by the shiny stuff that doesn’t matter as much. Remember: the quality of the Provider is most important.”
Ready to go take a tour? Find a quality Provider near you.