If you have small children and you need to find great, reliable, affordable childcare, there’ll be hundreds of questions you’ll want to ask. To make sure your little ones are not only safe but also very happy, nursery care is just one of the options open to you. But what turns a good nursery, into a great choice? How can you be sure you’re making the right decision if you’re leaving your child with people you don’t know very well?
Your children, your children’s happiness
The quality of the childcare you choose – that’s the most important thing. You know best, and you’ll know what’s most important to you in terms of general childcare. Is it making sure your children get balanced meals at the right time? Do they have special health needs? Will there be the right level of staffing, is it having a one-to-one ratio for your child? Is it ensuring they have a stimulating day, with lots of activities but the right amount of ‘rest time’ too? Is it knowing they’ll have access to traditional toys, or the ‘latest’ in childcare practices and health regimes?
A good nursery will ease your concerns in many of those regards, but there are some questions you’ll always want to ask – and perhaps discuss the answers in detail before making a long or even short-term commitment.
Are the staff trained?
Nurseries are often staffed by youngsters, male and female, who are working their way up through the childcare profession. That doesn’t mean they’re not qualified. But it is important to understand how much genuine childcare experience staff have had, before you hand your little ones over into their care. Does every member of staff know what to do in a medical emergency? Does everyone have experience spotting the symptoms of food allergies, or know what to do if a youngster is stung by a wasp? Can staff tell the difference between a ‘grumpy’ child, a child who is genuinely upset about something, a child who is hungry – and a child who really is not enjoying the nursery experience at all, over a period of time?
Timing is everything
Don’t forget, nurseries are commercial enterprises. It’s also worth making sure you’ll be assured of the place, once your child has been ‘added to the list’ in any care environment. And then, depending on your own arrangements, you may have to make a week-in, week-out commitment to paying for that place – even if you’re on holiday. If you live close by, a good nursery can be invaluable: it’s also worth asking, ‘what are the costs involved if my child is sick and can’t come in? Or I’m running late?’
What about general health and safety?
Your first impression of a nursery is a good one to go by, and it’s definitely worth ‘dropping in over a period of time’. Quite rightly, a nursery could ask you to make an appointment before coming along to ‘check things out’. After all, little ones will be there, settled into a routine, and you wouldn’t want anyone disturbing your child’s mid-afternoon nap unnecessarily … but there’s also something to be said for an informal approach to visiting premises, so that you can see fridge-locks are in place; stair-gates, if they’re used, are up; cots or play-pens are clean; surfaces are kept clear; cleaning fluids are kept in child-proof cupboards; medicine-cabinets are accessible to staff only … These are all things worth thinking about – as is asking to see a ‘bumps and scrapes’ register.
How will you handle differences in opinion?
Only you’ll know the reasons why you choose one nursery over another, or make the decision to go for nursery care rather than a registered childminder, friend, or member of your family. But a business – a nursery – will have policies and procedures in place already, to guide the quality of childcare they provide. If you have specific faith concerns, would they be provided for? Could dietary requirements always be met? Would you rather a nursery didn’t take your child to a particular park, or refrained from certain ‘messy’ activities? Ultimately, you’ll have the final say – but it is a good idea to find out what the nursery’s expectations are in advance, for talking through differences of opinion and resolving any problems with your children’s interests at heart.
What kind of environment will your children be in?
New toys, old toys. Comfortable surroundings; bright, light, fresh and airy. Every nursery will be different – what does this one offer? A garden? A sensory area? Lots of books, crayons, paper, textiles, musical instruments? Look beyond the childcare areas too, and ask to see food preparation areas and office environments: they can be a good indicator of the care and attention given elsewhere. Then, ask what equipment you’ll need to provide yourself – things like a second set of clothes and food equipment (things like sterilizers or bottle-warmers).
What will it cost?
One of the reasons parents choose family or friends to help with childcare, is that nurseries can feel expensive. But it’s important to weigh up the benefits of putting your child into a professional, well-equipped childcare environment too. Nurseries are likely to be more expensive than a child-minder, it’s true (although they’re generally considered to be less expensive than a nanny), and fees vary across the country from region to region. But it’s your children’s welfare you’re trying to secure, and that does have a tangible value. And of course, you may be able to get extra tax credits to help with nursery costs if you're a working parent – but do remember, it’s a financial commitment you need to be sure you can make in advance.
Your children, your choices
Finding someone to look after your children isn’t always easy. Don’t underestimate the value of looking at a nursery, or even more than one, even if you think it’s not affordable. A ‘quick look round’ may raise questions that you’ll want to answer in other circumstances: for example, every nursery will have a ‘sick policy’ (describing what happens if a child is unwell, when he or she should go home, and when they can return to the nursery), but not every form of childcare will offer you a ‘bumps and scrapes’ register to sign at the end of the day.
In an ideal world, a nursery feels like ‘home from home’. It can be an excellent choice, because your children will have access to not only a wide range of equipment and toys, but also all of the benefits from socialising with other youngsters their own age. Nurseries can be joyful places; full of laughter, and immense fun for the children who are spending time there. When you’ve worked through the practical aspects of choosing your childcare arrangements though, don’t forget, you have to be happy you’ve made the decision with your head not your heart…