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It's never too early to research good daycare centers

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Think of your career: Are you in retail sales, writing, medicine, teaching, design, technology or city planning? If so, you know the value of spending time doing research before completing a project. The same is true of childcare centers: Spring is the time to find excellent child care for your young children over the summer months.

If you are fortunate, your child may already have the perfect child care center for your needs. It's close to work and home, has caring and loving teachers and support staff, has an approachable administration in place and your child has made friends and enjoys their time there. But if you rely on Safe Key or other school programs to care for your child, you had better start searching for a "home away from home" now.

Childcare centers have limited space and tight budgets. They may be able to afford to hire extra support staff for over the summer, but what happens when a trusted caregiver goes on vacation, gets ill, or leaves the job? Some centers have "summer camp" atmospheres that are more fun and a bit more easy-going than the regular curriculum. Would this be to your child's liking: the chance to pursue different interests? Then again, there are also "camps" offered by universities (such as UNLV) or museums that specialize in science, dance, sports or other interests. Would this be of more use to your child?

Sit down and ask your children what they prefer. If they are over 10, the answer will probably be "I want to stay at home!" (meaning sleeping in, playing video games and watching TV). Not all children can take care of themselves, but if you can get a college student or relative or even a nanny to come in, and if you can afford the cost, this may be a valid way to solve the issue, especially if you work irregular hours.

24 hour daycare centers are not the ideal choice. After regular hours the ratio of staff to students may be higher and do you really want your child to sleep in a strange place? If your job keeps you away from your child for over 10 hours a day, the "at home care" choice may be right for you. But remember, Grandparents have lives too and neighbors do tend to feel put out if you ask them to watch your kids too often, unless you reciprocate.

Sit down, discuss budgets and needs and make the exodus to visit a few centers to see what they offer. Visit your community center and see what their programs entail. Ask your neighbors if there is someone they know to whom you can entrust your children. Ask your child what centers their friends go to, and, if possible, speak to the parents. First- hand knowledge is always preferable to hearsay.

When you visit a center, don't necessarily go during "Open House," when everything is meticulous and the teachers are expecting company. Go during a regular work-day and talk to the teacher, look at the bulletin boards, check out the menus, ask about allergy policies and what to do when your child is sick. Ask if children can bring a lunch or snacks from home if they don't like what is being served. Check out any extra costs, the hours of operation and what the staff/student ratio is at any given time of day. Watch the body language of the teacher, director, support staff, cook and anyone else who will come into contact with your child.

If you are with the Director, the teacher will be very careful about what they disclose, but you can find out a lot about a classroom by observing circle time, bulletin boards or play time. Tour the playground and ask about daily schedules. Here in Nevada, children often play in a room during the hot weather. Is there a special place set aside for them to exercise or are they confined to their classroom? Are menus mostly carbs and empty calories, apples and crackers and cheese every day (no, not every child likes that), or are there healthy alternative, rotating lunches/dinners and snacks with fresh fruits and veggies during season? Even if your child doesn't eat them at home, in the company of friends they may decide to give something different a try.

Once you narrow down the selections, visit them again, as a family. Get your child's feeling about the place. Often, they are good at making astute observations. Are classrooms organized in recognizable, interesting centers? Are music, arts & crafts and a circle time offered every day? Which curriculum do they use and is it a set curriculum or can teachers adapt it to the needs of the children.

Child-centered learning has its place, but children still need strong teachers with good planning skills and with a love for their job. Who will be with the children at which time of day? You can check a place's specs through Child Daycare, to see if there are any issues or outstanding problems. Check Yelp or Angie's List. Do your research and then make the right choice with facts in hand. And, after 25 years in the field, I can also advise you to always have a second choice in reserve. You will know within 2 weeks if your child is happy or not. If you talk to them after "school" every evening, and if you know the questions to ask, you will know exactly what's happening on a daily basis.

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