Looking for a childcare centre can be daunting. I remember the knot in my stomach that developed when thinking about where I would enrol my first child. Whether you have had children in centres before, or you are sending one off for the first time, choosing a quality service where your child feels safe and happy is a big decision and can be very stressful.
I was hoping that I would get a good feel for a centre and know it was right. In reality, my husband and I looked at five different centres before choosing one, and the decision was equal parts practicality, a general feeling and proper analysis! Visiting centres was a key step in our process, as were a number of questions we asked during tours.
A few years later, I can look back and see where we went right and what else we should have understood. Here are our top tips when choosing a childcare centre.
The Importance of Early Years Care and Development
The impetus for many families to find an early learning centre is the need or desire for the primary caregiver to return to work. Although this is an important benefit of these centres, their primary objective is to support the holistic development of children, so that:
- They access age appropriate stimulation and play-based learning needed for cognitive, emotional and social development, and
- They are provided with the necessary foundations for the transition to primary school.
Enabling children to develop cognitively, emotionally, socially and physically at this stage of life requires skill and an understanding of children’s development.
“There is clear evidence that early childhood development provides the foundations for life and learning… This involves developing the cognitive, emotional and social skills needed to succeed, as well as achieving sound health and wellbeing.”
Early learning centres are required to demonstrate this understanding by adherence to the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and National Quality Framework. The National Quality Framework provides a nationally streamlined approach to regulation, assessment and quality improvement for early childhood education and care across Australia.
An early learning centres should not just be focused on ensuring children are safe and happy day to day, but research shows quality early learning centres are also making an enormous contribution to a child’s future success, as well as supporting the transition into school and beyond.
This information is not intended to terrify families looking for a centre, but should encourage you to be critical in your appraisal and feel confident in investigating which centre will best support your child.
Your practical requirements
The huge contribution early learning centres make to the development of children sits along side the practical requirements families have for care. Finding a centre that has opening hours that suits, days available that map to your needs and a location that is accessible is also important. Before you even set foot in a centre, it is important to work out which days and times you need care for and then call around. This will rule out services that may not be able to meet your requirements.
Also, be sure you understand what the fees include and if this suits your budget. Would you prefer all meals and nappies provided and bed linen included? Or would you rather pack your own meals and provide nappies? Centres can cater to a wide range of dietary requirements, so make sure you outline any you need them to know about and be sure these will be respectfully accommodated. This is not limited to allergies and intolerances but should also include cultural and religious requirements.
Programs and curriculum
Opportunities to play, explore and interact with their peers are essential for children to learn. Play is in fact the most important learning tool children have, so centres need to be organised in a way that supports a wide range of play experiences.
When touring centres consider the range and quality of the play areas and equipment. Are there outdoor areas that are easily accessible? How are children’s interests expanded on in their play environment? Are play spaces explicitly inclusive of children of all abilities and how are children living with disabilities supported to engage in play with their peers and environment?
Also double check the educator to child ratios. These ratios are government requirements and ensure children have appropriate levels of individual care and attention for development and safety.
For children just beginning at a centre, there will need to be an orientation period, which may include a caregiver. Ask about how this is managed and what you can expect when you and your child are settling into the centre.
For older children within centres, school readiness should be an element of their program. This is not learning to read and write, schools do that. Instead there needs to be a focus on building resilience, independence and social skills – all of which are essential for beginning school. It should also include processes to pick up and communicate where there may be delays that require early intervention.
Talk to the centre about how they prepare children for the transition to school and what role they expect families to play in that process.
Early education and care is a team effort. Children are exposed to a wide range of settings and each one contributes to their development, and so it is important that centres recognise that family engagement is an important aspect of early learning. This includes key days for celebration that families contribute to, considering how families wish to contribute to the life of the centre and through daily communication with you about the program and your specific child.
You can ask how the centre will report to you about your child’s learning and day-to-day activities. What is the process for passing information from your family to educators regarding specific issues or interests your child may have? What is the process in place for identifying any issues your child may be having at the centre so you can work together to address these? How is behaviour managed in the centre and how is this communicated to families?
It is important to feel welcomed and part of the community at the centre you choose, as well as to feel comfortable and confident in the care your child will be receiving. Having a sense of belonging is part of this as is a flexible approach to communication between the centre and families.
It is important that centres support all children to access activities and resources in meaningful ways and that efforts are made to ensure children with different or additional needs are participating in ways that explore their strengths. This requires well qualified staff, appropriate accessibility aides and a centre culture that values and celebrates all children.
You may get a feel for this by observing educator-child interactions while on tour, through displays around the centres and by asking explicitly about how this is nurtured. Whether you are asking to ensure your child’s specific needs will be met or more generally, you should be able to expect an answer that demonstrates an understanding that exclusion can be accidental, but needs deliberate efforts to counteract it and is a shared responsibility.
The most important aspect for any family is that you trust the educators. This is partly due to their skills and qualifications but is also about how they interact with you and your child.
Are the educators friendly, welcoming and smiling? Do the team members look clean, professional and happy? Do you feel welcomed and able to talk to any staff members? How are the staff interacting with the children? How do they interact with each other?
The National Quality Framework requires certain levels of qualifications for educators and team leaders in order to better support children’s learning and development through approved learning frameworks, but it is also important they feel safe and happy at their place of work. You can get an idea of this when interacting with educators on your tour, but also ask about staff turnover to ensure it is no higher than the industry average. A centre that values its educators plays a key role in creating an environment that is positive for the children as well.
As the Children First Alliance states, access to quality early education and care has positive, life-long effects. Providers of early childhood care are passionate about ensuring children’s needs are met and therefore welcome families to ask questions and explore their requirements so that you feel comfortable with the care and support your child, and your family, will receive.
For more information on any of our six early learning services or what to look for when choosing a day care provider, please call (02) 6126 4700 or visit us at https://communityservices1.org/early-education-care-centres/.