Put safety first. This is your most fundamental concern when evaluating potential centers. Make sure the facility is equipped to handle the safety needs of kids who may be toddling one day and scaling a bookcase the next.
“Perhaps the most important safety feature is constant adult supervision,” says Diane Trister Dodge, founder and president of Teaching Strategies Inc., in Washington, D.C., a program devoted to enhancing the quality of early-childhood programs. “The ratio of toddlers to teachers should be no more than four-to-one. You’ll also want to look for outlet covers, smoke detectors, locked cabinets, and age-appropriate toys. Any toy that has breakable parts or is smaller than the inside of a toilet-paper roll is a choking hazard for kids under 4.” Safety standards apply to food too. It’s important that growing toddlers eat healthy snacks throughout the day, so ask to see the center’s meal schedule.
Do the white-glove test. In a day-care center, cleanliness is next to healthiness. “Before the age of 2, a child’s immune system is especially vulnerable to viruses,” says Richard Clifford, Ph.D., codirector for the National Center for Early Learning and Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. To prevent germs from spreading, day-care staff must be scrupulous about washing their own and the children’s hands and keeping the eating, sleeping, and diaper-changing areas immaculate.
Chat up the caregivers. “Day care for toddlers is not glorified baby-sitting,” says Karen Miller. “To get the most out of the experience, a toddler needs a caregiver who engages him in play and challenges him to stretch his skills.” Talk to the staff; find out about their background and credentials (ideally, they should have early-childhood-development training) and get them to share their ideas about child rearing.