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Five things that matter more than you think when choosing child care

When looking for high-quality child care, you probably have a few big things that dominate your checklist. You want to know, for instance, about the provider’s education and experience. Is the program’s license up-to-date? What type of curriculum is followed?

But there are other details of child care programs that you might want to consider. These lesser known characteristics may or may not be as important to you as they are to another family, but they could have a big impact on your family’s happiness and satisfaction.

Food

Does the program provide all snacks and meals, or does it ask families to bring food from home, and which fits your needs?

Cari Meyers of Henderson, NV feels it was beneficial that her program provided food for her son and daughter. “I loved the food, it was extremely healthy. It allowed me to not worry about packing lunches and I know my kids were probably eating better there than at home half the time.” It can be tiring to deal with a dirty lunch box that needs to be cleaned and repacked each day, or stressful to figure out what nutritious food to pack that your child will actually eat.

On the other hand, you may need or want to control what your kid eats at school for any number of reasons including dietary restrictions, health considerations, or cultural preferences. Whether a program provides food doesn’t dictate its level of care or quality, but it could help you choose a program that works best with your family’s lifestyle..

Special events

Many programs offer after-hours activities designed to help families spend time with each other and bond. Special events could include, for example, an evening to carve pumpkins in the fall or decorate cookies during the holidays, or a day out at an amusement park.

Where events like this can be appealing for some, they might feel burdensome for others. You might enjoy the opportunity to socialize and meet other families outside of school hours. Or, you may prefer to spend time at home, especially after a long day of work, rather than attend another event.

Whatever your take, ask your prospective child care provider their approach to social events so you can evaluate the community and convenience..

Parent groups

Like special events, parent groups may be considered a huge perk to some parents and another source of inconvenient requests to others. Parent involvement groups, not offered by all providers, can take a variety of forms.

They can be social groups, with informal meetings after hours to talk about things like fundraising. Or they may be more formal, with provider-led presentations on child development stages or potty training.

“The parent involvement groups were a trial,” comments Katherine Bollinger of Hillsborough, NC. For her, the groups at her children’s program felt like wasted time and energy.

In other instances, though, joining parent involvement groups may help you feel connected to other parents. Participating may also facilitate more communication and comfort between you, your provider, and other families in your program.

Accessibility

Child care programs, including those in private homes, have an ongoing responsibility to make their programs barrier-free for children or parents with disabilities per the Americans with Disabilities Act.

There are smaller ways that accessibility matters, too. Take a look around your prospective child care arrangement. Is there a spot where you can leave a car seat so your partner can pick up your infant at the end of the day? What about a stroller if you walk to and from child care? Can a grandparent make it to the front door or are there too many steps? These questions are worth considering for some families.

Future thinking

Many kids start child care as infants or toddlers, when the emphasis is on physical care and nurturing. In a few short years, those tiny ones become preschoolers who need more space for large motor play and school readiness activities.

So when picking a child care program, adults should look beyond their child’s immediate needs and consider a program’s capacity to accommodate older children. Do the older kids have enough space? How are their needs balanced with the more immediate needs of the younger children? If this feels like the best program for your baby or toddler but you don’t think it will be right for your preschooler, are you willing to make another transition before kindergarten?

While these five qualities of a child care program take a back seat to whether or not a program is offered by nurturing, educated caregivers in a safe and healthy environment, they are the little somethings that may mean the difference between whether you like your program or you love your program.

Every family should decide what their own must-haves and dealbreakers are, and in many cases, no single program will check every single box. But considering you may spend years at a program before your child enters kindergarten, not to mention thousands of dollars in tuition, it’s smart to take even the little things into account.

Find a high-quality preschool or child care program near you.

Katy Clark

Katy M. Clark is a writer and mother of two who lives in Michigan. She has a master's degree in Early Childhood Education and is a former child care teacher.