So you've done it. You've scoured Google, you’ve read every Yelp review and you've asked everyone you know- including the old man who laughs at cabbage at the supermarket (he's actually quite insightful) about a daycare you had your eye on. Now it's time for the all-important tour.
But what do you look for?
The last time you visited a daycare was in the late 1980's and you only really paid attention to the toys (mostly because you were 3). What’s more, you'll be walking along with the director who will be spouting facts in quick succession; enough information to make your head spin. So besides obvious signs of neglect or danger, what should you focus on?
Well at Easel we tour centers all the time. So we thought it would be helpful to list some things to take notice of on a daycare tour. None of them are full-blown disqualifiers, but if you notice any of these things you should definitely get to the bottom of it.
No References? That’s a Problem
The best indicator of future behavior is what happened in the past, and references are a great way to see what a daycare’s past performance was like. When touring a new daycare center, make sure you leave with a list of references (i.e. current or recent parents) you can call. They should not only be able to provide an extensive list; they should be eager to do so. If they seem apprehensive about giving references, especially recent ones, that is a big red flag.
Visiting Your Child
Daycare centers are secure areas, usually with fenced-in yards and doors that lock from the inside, where visitors sign in and out of the building. They are not, however, prisons. Most daycare centers should allow you to visit your child at any time of the day without any issue. If the daycare center has rules or visiting hours, find out why. Of course, some places may have a very good reason for visiting restrictions - such as maintaining safety or order. If a daycare director is apprehensive about you visiting at all, this is a big red flag and they should provide a very good reason as to why.
It can be hard to walk into a children's space and sometimes not feel like it's way too tiny to exist in. That's because it often is… for adults. Children have a much different conception of space than us big people do so you have to try and put on your kid glasses when evaluating a space. While centers in the suburbs can be palaces to child entertainment, centers in the urban core will have size constraints in light of the higher real estate costs. This is important to bear in mind.
That being said, crowding is something to pay attention to. State regulations require minimum square footage for licensed facilities but minimum might not be up to your standards. Here's a useful tip, picture all the kids in the classroom napping. During nap time all the kids are sprawled out on the nap mats on the floor and thus it gives a sense of how much surplus space there is accounting for all the cubbies, toys and tables. If when you picture this it seems the children might be napping practically on top of one and other then crowding might be an issue and you should ask the director about it.
A fact of life: kids are messy. They make messes. Not sure where your child went off to? Just follow the mess. While some mess and disarray can be evidence of quality playtime, other messes can mean many things.
Toys will sometimes be out of place and furniture will be laid out to accommodate children, not feng shui. So try not to worry too much about the orderliness of playrooms. Instead, look closely at refrigerators, bathrooms, and changing tables. These are the areas that get the most use and require the most attention by the staff. Discolored surfaces might indicate some stains were left too long, or they haven't been cleaned adequately. Refrigerators should be cold enough and look like they are cleaned (and cleaned out) regularly, and food prep surfaces should be clean enough to, well, eat off of. The cleanliness of the daycare center goes a long way in showing the attentiveness of the staff so if you notice these things then it’s definitely something that should give you pause.
Toys and Activities
Of course, you want a child care center that will give you the peace of mind and let you get through your day without worrying about the safety of your children. However, beyond safety you want to make sure your child’s experience is a good one.
Take a look at the art hanging on the walls, the furniture, the quality of the toys and play facilities. A child’s imagination is limitless, but no one gets excited about playing with a broken toy or coloring a picture with a mostly-empty crayon box.
Also, notice what else is going on in the main areas. Does the center use a TV or computer as a part of their core activities? Of course, a fun movie is a good idea every once in a while! But movies every afternoon is not the care you are paying a center for.
Lastly - how does the staff seem? Facilities and amenities are all important, but it is ultimately the people who will be caring for your young one. This is admittedly very hard to determine from a tour because you will probably only be seeing teachers in action very briefly (hence the importance of references!!!). However, if you can take time to notice how engaged they are and what type of attitude they apply to their work that is very useful. One thing to notice, when everyone goes down for their nap, is the staff checking up on their Facebook feeds, or are they preparing the space for the next activity?
There are a number of great centers out there for your child. Don’t despair! Keep Looking! In the meantime hopefully this list helps you in your search.
Easel - Daycare When You Need It!
Did your nanny fall through? Did your regular babysitter get called out of town at the last moment? Easel has you covered. We offer "Daycare When You Need It!" and help parents book spots at quality daycares near them—even at the last minute. Click here and fill out the “book care now” form if you need care. Or signup to stay in touch with Easel!