What makes a daycare "better" at child development?

What do daycare/preschools do that make them “better” (in terms of cognitive and social development) than others? What kinds of questions can I ask to see if they are doing a good(/“better”) job with this kind of thing? I guess I am in particular wondering about Montessori, because the Montessori schools cost about twice what it would cost to put our Little One in some other situation, and I still feel like I don’t have a good idea of why they think it is so awesome that it is worth that much.

One thing I thought of was asking what sorts of things they do that I can’t easily replicate at home (or don’t want to). For example one place was telling us they do projects like let the kids play with a big mound of whipped cream and food coloring to show them combining colors. That’s something I could do at home but seems sufficiently messy that I probably wouldn’t.

It’s not even clear to me, mind you, that I need or even want to send my kid to the daycare that’s “best” at cognitive and social development (though on the other hand, as the child of two geeks, she probably needs all the social help she can get). But I am interested in what the Dope has to say about the nuts and bolts of what makes one better than another.

I inquire into what I get as the parent. Do they send home a basic report on what the kids are working on? Is this a plan sent ahead of time? Daily? The answers really vary between “no” and “yes, daily and personalized”. I also ask about how much music and foreign language they work into their days. Again, el zilcho with some and scads with others. It’s been pretty easy to discern the motivated programs that are big on activities, structure, and learning from the ones that clearly exist to simply watch your kids.

There is really no way of quantifying (in an empirical sense anyway) which centres are better. Montessori (and Steiner and all the other branded child-care units) make claims that really don’t bear out in testing. At least here in Australia, all c/c centres are ‘child centred’, encourage all sorts of play activity with all sorts of materials, and have just as committed staff as those which have a supposed underlying philosophy to their program.

Of course there is a big difference between daycare and preschool…by the time the kids are ‘preschool’ age, they will need more structure and directed activities than they needed in daycare. I guess it depends upon which you are interested in at this point.

My suggestion would be to take an (unscheduled) wander through the facilities you might wish to send your Kidlet to: talk to staff, check out how sociable the kids are, and just breathe in the ‘vibe’ of the place…that will tell you more than anything as to whether you’d be comfortable with your kid there.

Seriously, at the end of the day a child-care/pre-school is not going to turn your kid into a cretin if they’ve already got smarts. At the same time, they might not be able to convert your idiot into an Einstein, but they may well turn her into a really nice person all the same. Check out the centres, whatever flavour they are, and use your gut-instincts to make that choice.

Good luck!!

One thing I intend to take into consideration (um… not as if there are a huge number of choices in my area, but anyway…) are the new, numbskull rules that limit interaction between students. I guess there are centers, and schools, where children aren’t allowed to talk to each other at meal and snack times for example. That strikes me as ludicrous, and an un-doing of one of the major benefits of early education, which is socializing with other people.

Observation. I agree that, as unhelpful as this is, “the vibe” of the place is far more important than any pedagogy, philosophy or even set of rules. You want a place where both you and your child are comfortable. There’s no way to figure this out without spending some time there.

I can tell you a few of the things that have made me run away from preschools:

Prayer at lunch at a publicly funded preschool that did not advertise itself as religious in any way. While I wasn’t entirely opposed to the prayer per se, it did destroy my trust in them being honest and law-abiding. If they’re willing to discard that rule, what others are they also not following that I don’t know about? What if they decide they don’t really need to wash their hands before preparing food, or that kids don’t really need seatbelts for field trips in the preschool’s minivan?

A school with a Montessori sign and name in which neither the director nor the teachers could tell me a single thing about the Montessori philosophy or how it was utilized in the classroom. I got a wave of the arm and a vague, “Well, we have these Montessori toys over there…” It was obvious from observation that they were NOT child directed or following Montessori precepts at all. Again, I don’t really care so much about that (I’m not a die hard Montessori Mom or anything), but if they didn’t know that and used the name anyway, what else were they lying about?

A school at which teachers used shaming techniques and physical restriction to discipline kids. If they were yelling and grabbing kids and shoving them around when a prospective parent was standing 5 feet away observing, what the hell were they doing when no outside adults were there?! :eek:

To directly answer the question in the OP, the thing that daycares/preschool do “better” for socialization and development is present more opportunities for practice and more points of view to learn from, as well as a space where (as you’ve already noted) the kid can try activities and toys that you don’t have the patience or tools for.

Unless you’ve got siblings at home or you babysit for others, your kid probably doesn’t interact with other kids on a daily basis, and that can be problematic when they get thrust into kindergarten or first grade in today’s schools. No matter what the bells and whistles of any particular programs claims, the things that kids really learn in daycare/preschool are how to sit when it’s time to sit, how to listen, how to speak, how to clean up after yourself and how to give other people the same consideration you want yourself. Developmentally, according to Erikson, they’re learning Autonomy - how to do things by themselves as they explore the world, like putting on coats and passing out milk and tidying up the blocks - and Shame and Doubt, which sounds awful in those words but what he really means is that ideally you learn it’s okay to ask for help when you really need it.

These things are really hard to learn! The more opportunities in a day, the more practice. If you don’t get these lessons until you’re 5 or 6, you’re a good three years behind most of the other kids.

One of the first things I ask is what their teacher turnover is like, i.e. how often they replace the staff. Partially this is because it sucks when your kid forms a bond with a preschool teacher and then the teacher leaves the next year. But partially because I’ve found that the places with high turnover tend to have more of a “toddler factory” feel to them. That may just be personal bias on my part but it’s based on some experience with these places over the years.

As for Montessori, it’s not a brand so much as a philosophy. You may think this is nitpicking, but it’s important to realize that there is no Montessori certifying organization or whatever. Any school can slap a Montessori label on the front. So the quality in Montessori programs is highly variable. The basic principle in Montessori is child-directed learning, although different schools will implement this in different ways. The Montessori preschool my kids went to has a lot of different areas set up in the room - the reading section, the mathematics section, the arts section, etc., and to an extent, the kids can choose what they want to do at any given moment. Nobody is going to crack the whip and say, “You must do art now because it is art time.” That said, at our preschool, they keep track of what kids are making use of what areas and if a certain kid is totally avoiding, say, the drawing/writing area, the teachers will encourage/direct them to go over and work in that area, so that ultimately all of the kids will be able to develop all of the skills they’re working on. Whatsit the Youngest is in his second year there, and I’ve seen all of my kids go through this system with good success.

Really it’s about what you want, though. That philosophy fits in well with my own parenting philosophy. I liked the idea of child-directed learning, and also I liked the fact that all of the “toys” at my kids’ preschool are actually learning-based activities, instead of just a giant room filled with plastic blinking toys. (They can play with that stuff at home. :stuck_out_tongue: ) But like I said, implementation is highly variable. I’ve heard of Montessori schools where they literally do not ever make a child do anything they’re not interested in doing, and I’ve heard of ones that are really Montessori in name only and are basically no different from a standard preschool.

Overall, though, what I look for in a preschool is: What’s the turnover rate like for staff? When I visit, do the teachers appear to be engaged with the kids? How do they handle conflicts? What do they do for discipline? Am I allowed to come and observe any time I want to, and is there a private area from which I can do so without being seen myself? (Not a must, but very nice when they have it.) Is there plenty of outdoor play time? Is there a good mix of learning and play? (I.e. I don’t want a school-like environment where all they do is worksheets and learning activities, but I don’t want “let’s just play with toys all day” either.)

Anyway, good luck. I hated searching for a preschool and am glad we’re done with that part of parenting now. :slight_smile:

Thank you! This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to get.

drastic_quench, this is a very helpful question and one I will definitely be asking!

kambucta, is it really true that the claims don’t hold up in testing? That… kind of makes me feel a lot better, actually, that I’m not condemning my child to inferior-ness because of not giving her the right preschool. (Of course, who am I kidding – my husband and I turned out just fine, and our parents put little or no thought into preschool because there were only one or two local options – my sister-in-law, however, is Psycho!Mom and has managed to get me really nervous about it.)

Sattua, what? That’s ridiculous!

WhyNot, thanks for the list of things to look out for! I totally agree about the socialization. I try to do something with other kids once a week or so, but it’s hard to coordinate with other moms because all of us are busy, and last week we were sick and the week before my friend’s kid was sick, so right there that was half a month she saw basically no other kids at all.

MsWhatsit, I am totally taking notes on your criteria! Also, I’m glad you said that about a philosophy – I guess I had this idea that Montessori was a particular brand. I like child-directed learning (and hate blinky toys – we have a couple which the Little One loves, but like you say she can play with them at home!) as well, but I was concerned that the Montessori school here has a lot less in the way of outdoor play than I was hoping for, and your post has made it a little more clear that I should trust myself as a parent and knowing what my daughter wants/needs. (For some reason I find this absurdly hard to do!) And thanks for the sympathy – I’m glad to hear someone else hates this too :slight_smile:

My son just started preschool last week. I visited two before deciding on the one he is currently attending.

First one - HUGE child-factory. Smelled like a giant shit factory when I walked in. dirty (not just “messy”, but layers of filth, both on the floor and walls)… I was shocked, this place was only 3 years old. The teacher that gave us the tour was mal-informed, couldn’t answer simple, basic questions about daily routines/care. The stuff on the walls (dates, schedules) were outdated, as though they just “forgot” about them, and clearly didn’t stay on any kind of routine during the day. To add insult to injury, the price was outrageous! Very unimpressed.

Second one - Montessori. What a pretentious joke. First, let’s start with the fruit and whole-grain appetizers, followed by the Mozart room, then downstairs is the “Montessori Toys” which will ensure your child will get a full ride scholarship to Harvard. The playground looked like something that belonged on Mars. Not my cup of tea. Vague answers about their learning philosophy, and I loathe that kind of environment. Way too new-agey for me.

Things I love about his new preschool that I recommend looking out for: Teacher attitude and tenure/qualifications, routine/schedules CLEARLY listed, cleanliness/hygiene (within reason), ODOR of the place, appropriate learning activities, structure and free play as well, well-kept and appropriate playground outdoors, and size (I prefer small). An overall feeling will usually be correct, although I’ve been fooled before.

Good luck.

Our son and daughter have been in a Montessori daycare/preschool since my FMLA leave ended with each. I think, as is above pointed out, that the actual “cognitive benefits” of a daycare really boil down to the overall feel of the place and what they expose the kids to. And it’s not really until preschool that the whole Montessori “philosophy” really kicks in.

Speaking only about my kids’ daycare/preschool, they only really start in with even a hint of structure at the toddler stage when most kids start taking just one nap a day, and even then, it’s a very loose structure and involves exclusively play, which is true until they get into preschool. In the “twos” rooms, they have slightly more structure (circle time, learning to clean up more, playing with more advanced toys, etc.), but still it’s pretty loose until they move up to the preschool.

I like my daycare a lot because I get daily reports on what my baby has been doing, they listen to me (which is very important), I know every single one of the teachers and they know me and my kids, there is very low turnover, they’re very transparent - I can drop by at any time of the day and they don’t care and they give my kid a lot of attention. She trusts them, she likes them and she reaches for them when I drop her off. Unless she’s moving up a room, I never have to pry her off me - she’s happy to be there. Oh, and the toys are great. They’re progressively more complicated for each stage, so the baby room has toys related to tummy time and batting at objects and other things; the “transition” rooms (when they transition from crawling to walking and using a cup instead of bottle) have more advanced toys; and the toddler rooms have toys for pretend play and other even more complicated toys than in transition.

With the preschool part of the school I’m a little less happy, mostly because I think my son has outgrown it and I think their lead teacher has been having some personal problems that bleed into her teaching. She was earlier really easy going and relaxed, but she recently became downright surly and very tense and inpatient, which can make the kids tense, too. Their school year will be ending soon, though, and it’ll be more like summer camp 'til my son begins kindergarten at a new school in the fall. It worked for my son earlier, though, because they all knew him and knew me, were able to tell me what he did, provided him with fun, educational instruction and new experiences and were really good about bringing any concerns to me and working through any issues together.

Redbloom, thanks for the input. How were you fooled before?

overlyverbose, thanks! The Little One would be entering as a toddler, so this is relevant for us.

About smell: should there be no smell at all? We visited one place that (while we otherwise liked it) did smell, which put me off immediately, but on the other hand our house occasionally smells too when the Little One has a really smelly diaper, and multiply that by 20… seems like there are bound to be problems sometimes.

Those who get daily reports, are they verbal or written or what? I’d think it would be kind of hard to prepare written reports for so many kids…? But it also seems hard to verbally tell each parent what has been going on that day.

I would not be happy if there were a noticeable unpleasant smell, no. I mean, if you’re standing right next to the diaper disposal area, maybe. But the whole facility should not smell of diapers.

We used a daycare back in Seattle that gave daily reports, and they were pretty basic. There was a standard form where they could just write in naptimes, what the child ate at mealtime, and then maybe a line or two about what they did that day. I did like getting the daily feedback. The current place doesn’t do daily notes; we only get written reports if there’s been some injury incident, i.e. skinned knee, bonked head, etc.

And, yes, follow your instincts! We’ve toured some seemingly great places that just rubbed me the wrong way, and we didn’t go with them. IMO outdoor play is a must. Places that told us that “we go outside…when possible” or “we have outdoor recess for 10 minutes every other day” or whatever, were immediately off the list. Our current preschool does a 45-minute outdoor recess every day unless inclement weather prevents it, and then they have “large motor play” in the gym.

My daughter went to a Montessori school and was happy there. There are misconceptions regarding the name and accreditation.

From the school’s site:

The name “Montessori” is in the public domain and therefore any school can use the word “Montessori” in its name. Accreditation through an organization that accredits Montessori schools is one way to ensure that a school is authentic and meets national standards for quality in Montessori education.

Two of the largest organizations that accredit Montessori schools are American Montessori Society (AMS) and Association Montessori Internationale (AMI).

Yeah, I’d be worried if there were a strong bad smell, too. I mean, sometimes you’ll smell a little poo when they’re changing a diaper, but that’s normal. That and the occasional smell of spit up in the infants’ room. But if there’s a pervasive bad odor, I’d worry. The only time I can think of when my kids’ daycare had a really strong bad odor was when I came to get my son right after one of the kids had thrown up (it was coincidence that I had shown up then - I think he had a well-kid check up), and they were in the process of disinfecting all the surfaces.

As far as the reports go, they have a little form they fill out to let us know what she ate, how much milk she drank and when she pooped and peed. They sometimes include a line about what she did (today they did some sensory activity with beans and rice).

My oldest daughter went to a great daycare. I can describe what they did. It was set up like a small school with kids segregated by age although the let them mix during certain times. The whole preschool was clean and well maintained. They had actual activities by day scheduled on a calendar. The staff was stable and devoted to a certain age group so you got to know them. They would call about any incidents and fill out a report for things like biting that your child did or suffered from that you might want to know about. There were age appropriate learning lessons that advanced to kindergarten level as they got older.

The most important thing though was that it was a school and not just a small day care. It didn’t close because someone got sick. They could fine you if you were late but they had coverage in case of bad weather or emergencies. The daycare was the bottom floor of a nursing home so they took the kids to visit the elderly people which they all got a kick out of and there was medical care on site in case anyone needed it. There was a park and a playground on site as well. That is about as good as it can get. I didn’t worry too much about what she learned but they did teach her to count and all her ABC’s by age 3 and did a lot of individual reading. They didn’t watch any TV or movies there.

My youngest daughter had to go to a small day care provider because of a change in commutes. I never worried about her safety but I wouldn’t do that again if I had a choice. Dealing with another person’s demands like vacations and illnesses aren’t fun.

I’d ask about the training and education levels of the staff. They’re not all going to have bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but they should still have some formal training in child development. I’d also ask about opportunities for staff development and continuing education; this should be encouraged by the center and should also raise an eyebrow if it’s not.

The sprog’s daycare was affiliated with the university Airman and I attended, so the teachers all had bachelor’s degrees and some had (or were working on) their master’s. The program was relatively unstructured at the younger levels and got more structured as they got older to prepare the kids for the structure of kindergarten. The center was new and designed as a daycare, so everything was kid-friendly and easy to keep clean. They were a little weird about some stuff, but overall, we all had a good experience.

So, and I’m not trying to be snarky here, but is it really necessary for those younger levels, “relatively unstructured”, to be supervised with people who have bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees? Even the older kids being prepared for the structure of kindergarten - why is a degree important for teaching kids how to count and name their colors? Illiterate farmwives did the same for thousands of years.

Or is it that the education level of the instructors tells you something else that’s not directly about their ability to care for the kids, the same way my displeasure with the fake Montessori school wasn’t really about Montessori?

I know you’re an educator, so I’m sure education is important to you, and certainly daycares/preschools with highly qualified staff would like me to believe their degrees are important, too. But to be honest, I’m far more concerned that the staff are compassionate and competent than I am that they’re degreed. But maybe I’m missing a correlation here.

Education is like nursing. If all you needed to be a good nurse was compassion and competence, you wouldn’t have to go through nursing school, yet that is a requirement to be licensed as a nurse. Teaching is no different.

Just as you’ve studied anatomy and physiology; pharmacology; nutrition; and nursing care to benefit your patients, teachers study how children develop and learn; how to use this information to plan interesting activities that maximize learning; how to manage a classroom to teach children how to get along with peers and adults; and how to identify and work with children who have special needs, because early intervention can make a huge difference. And just as you’re probably learning in your own training, there may be cultural differences that impede your ability to care for your patients; children and families face the same issues in the school environment, and some teacher education programs teach how to tap into cultural and community resources to facilitate learning, rather than to impede it.

Completing a formal program also shows commitment and investment. Too many people get into child care because they like kids and need a job, but they’re going to move on when they burn out or find something they’d rather be doing. That’s not fair to the kids. But someone who has spent time with kids in a daycare environment, who knows what they’re getting into, and who is invested in their career, is more likely to stay. And, frankly, I believe that kids deserve more than a glorified babysitter; they deserve teachers who are knowledgeable and committed.

Of course not. But when you talk specifically of a “program …relatively unstructured at the younger levels,” I’m wondering how *much *education a person needs to do that capably. I’m not saying no education is needed, but I do question whether a Master’s degree is really more useful or indicator of a good quality daycare. I don’t think even a Bachelor’s degree is, nor does my state for licensing providers.

All of those things you mentioned are taught in two certificate programs - one only 10 credits - at our community college. There’s also an AAS offered, which requires a bunch of things like American History I & II and Introduction to Music, as well as the Child Development core curriculum.

I mean, since you brought up nursing, I’m graduating in 7 weeks from a 2 year AAS program, eligible to apply for my RN. If I can legally practice as a nurse with an AAS, why is it important for child care workers to get Bachelor’s or Master’s? (And yes, I know there are people saying that two-year RN programs should be abolished because it’s not enough education, but so far, my state nursing board does not agree.)

Please understand, I’m not trying to diminish the importance of education. I absolutely want a teacher who knows that blocks are more appropriate for a 9 month old than a 50 piece puzzle. But I think that a Master’s Degree is overkill for daycare.

Well, in MsRobyn’s defense, she didn’t say she wanted everyone to have a Master’s degree. She just said she wanted to see some kind of formal training in child development, which I also think is appropriate.

I was fooled with an in-home daycare actually. What appeared to be a friendly, outgoing provider turned out to be a moody and impatient woman. About one month into taking my son there, she stopped greeting me in the mornings. Never smiled. Never told me how his day was. Always grouchy. Took lots of time off, and if I had to diagnose her, I’d say she had clinical depression. Not ideal for an in-home daycare provider. I went to her because of glowing reviews from a co-worker (???). Trust yourself, ask lots of questions and take the time to look around and see how other kids act there and how the teachers interact with the children. Nothing means more to me as a full-time working mother than the peace of mind of knowing my kids are well cared for and happy.

Perhaps I was too harsh about Montessori schools, it could have been just the one I toured. I want the best for my kids, but this appeared to cater to a level of intellectual parents I just wasn’t up to par with.