I remember how daunting it was the first time I chose a daycare centre for our son, Harry. He was ten months old and I had a new job with an immediate start date. The pressure was well and truly on.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact that because I didn’t understand how daycare centres worked, I also didn't understand what a ‘good’ one looked like.
Five years later and a second son in tow, I now know there are day-to-day aspects of daycare life that could help first-time parents better understand what they’re in for.
With that in mind, we asked Lynn Connolly, the Senior Practice Lead for SDN Children's Services centres for advice.
Here are 9 questions we think everyone should ask potential daycare centres.
For everything else, remember to use your judgement and intuition; any centre that “feels” right when you walk in shouldn’t be overlooked.
1. What’s the educator to child ratio?
As a first-time daycare parent this is something you may not think about. But understanding this helps you work out how much attention your child will be getting throughout the day.
Harry started out a really small daycare centre with less than 20 children and at least 5 educators which meant he was getting lots of one-one time and attention. But that's not always possible.
You may not already know but the government sets educator-to-child guidelines, as follows:
- Age 0-2: One adult to every 4 children
- Age 2-3: One adult to every 5 children
- Age 3-6: One adult to every 10 children
“We have enough educators rostered on to minimise the number of new faces children have to see and cover off things like leave, programming - beyond what the government expectations are,” said Lynn.
“We don’t just roster for staff to be working directly with children, we also ensure they have time to plan specifically to enhance each child’s learning and development.”
2. What foods and how much will my child eat at the centre?
Knowing your child will be coming home with a full belly at the end of each day can ease your anxiety. And you want to know the food will be prepared in a clean and considered environment - with as much thought as you'd give to things like freshness, portion size and nutrition.
One of the best things about daycare life for Harry was how much it affected his eating habits - in a good way! Having always been a picky eater at home, he was encouraged by the group meal times and eating with lots of other children his age.
Lynn told Kinderling that SDN centres are fitted with a commercial kitchen and professional cooks. Menus are created in consultation with families and directors, and then sent onto a dietician for guidance and feedback.
“We serve breakfast, lunch, morning tea, afternoon tea and a late snack. Lunch may be a meal with fruit and yoghurt and the menu is seasonal, and goes in six-week cycles,” said Lynn.
“We have strict rules around dietary requirements, and ensure each meal has correct levels of protein and fat with red meat, fish and vegetarian options.”
3. How will the centre work with my child’s routine?
We all know consistent routine is what counts when it comes to our little ones feeling secure. Also, you'd like to think all your hard work getting them set into said routine won't go to waste once they start daycare.
I appreciated the understanding of our centre's educators in sticking to both my son's daysleep routines, and their honesty about the unavoidable interruptions in those early weeks.
Ensuring you have at least a week to ease your child (and you) into daycare life, without having to race to and from work can be a real blessing. As can spending lots of time at the centre with your child in the lead up to your return to work.
Lynn says this can really assist a smooth transition. “We encourage parents to spend as much time as they can in the centre before their children officially start with us," she says. "It can be helpful for parents to come in and try and settle their child down for a nap a couple of times in the centre. This gives our educators a chance to observe how you respond to your child's sleep as well as your sleep cues and practices, so we can replicate at the centre.”
4. How much time will my child spend outside each day?
What child doesn't love being able to run around outside? Having access to the great outdoors can do wonders for mood, general wellbeing and most crucially of all, their ability to sleep at night!
If your little one is used to spending lots of time with you at the park during the week, you'll want to find out how much of the day they can expect to be outside (with a hat on, of course).
According to Lynn, play is vital for development and young bodies. "Our outdoor spaces are designed in order to help children to learn to use their bodies while developing many other skills. We use our outdoor environments to help connect children to nature in order to help them to be environmentally conscious."
5. What happens if my child gets sick at daycare?
Truth be told, the first year at daycare can bring a range of health issues for your little one - more kids inevitably means more exposure to germs and lurgies. It's a a natural part of the settling-in process, but you're better off being as prepared as possible.
Lynn recommends parents have a plan in place within your family about who will pick up the child when they’re sick.
“All our centres abide by the government’s Staying Healthy in Care guidelines. If your child gets a fever or temperature at the centre, we call the family and support them to make a decision about who will collect the child,” she explains.
6. What learning and development programs will be offered?
If you've spent quite a bit of time reading and playing with your little one at home, it's natural for you to want to know what learning opportunities to expect at daycare and how active teachers are in these on a daily basis.
“Our educators are observing throughout the day, monitoring how they are tracking in their learning and development. They also have time each week to sit down and review and analyse this data and plan programs accordingly,” said Lynn.
“For example, we may be working on some self-help skill with a toddler based on an educator's observation and input from their family and so educators will set up experiences as well as adapting the environment and even routine in order to help the child meet this goal.”
7. What programs do you offer my special needs child?
If you're the parent of a special needs child, your expectations of a potential daycare centre will be greater - and understandably so.
You'll no doubt want to know that your child will have access to the best possible learning programs and support, but also that their educators will have an intuitive understanding of their specific needs.
When it comes to individualised learning programs, Lynn says SDN centres, for instance, ensure core staff have professional support, up-to-date skills and access to the latest information to deliver them.
8. What are the centre's hours and is there a fee for late pick up?
Settling your child into daycare is just one part of the process – you’re also getting used to the idea of balancing work and family life. It took me at least six months to work out which order to do morning tasks in, before we settled in.
It's important to make sure the centre's hours are compatible with daily schedule, factoring in work start / finish times and your commute. SDN centres, for example, are open from 7:30am to 6pm, but staff work to accommodate families and their schedules as much as possible.
That said, Lynn advises that parents should be aware of a centre's late fee policy so don't get caught out.
9. What attributes do you look for when hiring educators?
Probably the biggest hurdle for me during the transition to daycare was adjusting to the idea that someone else would be looking after Harry and I wouldn't be around to observe them. Even the most chilled out parent will experience some anxiety in the first few weeks of daycare life.
Lynn says when it comes to recruiting staff, they aim to find the most qualified and passionate educators who connect with the centres' vision and values.
“Not only do we look for educators who are smart and passionate, caring with a strong understanding of child development, we want them to be community-minded," she explains.
“We also value cultural diversity, and think our educators bring children a rich experience in terms of understanding the way we see and be in the world."
Come to SDN’s Open Day on Saturday September 8. With 17 centres around Sydney, there’s one near you.
This is a sponsored post for SDN Children's Services.
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