Clues for choosing the best day-care center for your child

Beverly Zibrack is a working mother whose son, Benjamin, is in his second year at the Newton Center (Mass.) Day Care center for preschoolers. She recalls the many steps she took to locate the very best center for her son.

"I began by calling a number of nursery schools. When they told me they didn't stay open until 2 p.m. or longer, I started calling day-care centers. I visited a number of places and usually spent half a day there. I wanted a center that would prepare Benjamin for kindergarten. He always wanted to know how many children there were to play with, and if the center had bikes and slides. The places most eager to answer our questions were the best ones. I constantly asked myself: Would my child be happy here?"

As Mrs. Zibrack discovered, even if a day-care center boasts bright colors, unbroken toys, and a roomful of cheerful kids, it may not actually manage children well.

The following tips from several child care experts can help those searching for a center to see more than the ballons and hear more than the laughter.

First, obtain a list of state-licensed day-care centers in your area by calling a local human service organization or state office for children.

When you visit a center on the list, ask to see its state license and building inspection certificate. Then watch the center in action. A respectable center welcomes questions and invites you to observe as long as you wish.

During one day -- and sometimes even one hour -- you can discover how well the staff cares for children. Listen to the teacher's voice. Is it loving, gentle, but firm? Can the teacher constructively deal with negative behavior? Does each child receive some individual attention? Does the care-giver concentrate on teaching and playing with the children -- or on rearranging materials and chatting with other adults?

Some day-care teachers have much child-caring experience; others, a college degree in childhood development. Those with both --and a warm rapport with children -- are best qualified. An excellent center will tell you what experience its staff has.

Most children in day-care centers are between the ages of three and six. Helen Crary, director of Newton Center Day Care, suggests you ask yourself and the director these questions were you visit a pre-school center:

1. If it is open all day, are the center's indoor and outdoor learning and playing hours balanced with nutritious snacks, a hot lunch, and nap times?

2. Are there opportunities for children to develop intellectually (by learning to write, read, tell time, and understand abstract concepts like gravity and evaporation) as well as emotionally and socially (by working in small and large groups, with and without teachers, making choices and taking turns)? Or is a television serving as babysitter?

3. Is there space to jump, run, climb, hop, and slide?

4. Is creativity nurtured by teaching children to make scissor cut-outs, sculpture playdough, assemble puzzles, fingerpaint, and play-act nonstereotypical roles such as policewomen, or fathers caring for children?

Others recommend that parents specifically look for:

* A low and constant staff-child ratio: for infant toddlers up to two years, nine months, 1:2; for preschoolers up to the age of four, 1:5 or 1:7; for grade schoolers, 1:8 or 1:10.

* A safe, warm, homelike atmosphere.

* Favorable cost: for a five-day week, fees range over $100 for infant toddlers; between $25 and $80 or more for preschoolers; and about $35-$40 for grade schoolers. Centers with social service contracts and federal funding may base fees on a percentage of parent's income, subsidizing low-income families who sometimes pay $1.25 per week. And some business-operated centers hand day-care benefits to employees, while charging the public more.

* Hours suited to your schedule, which aren't exhausting for your child and are "flexible" -- allowing time at home with your child when possible.

Many centers operate full time, but some give only part-time and temporary care. If a center closes for the summer, ask if it offers a "family day care" option during which parents take turns caring for small groups of children in their homes.

After-school programs should focus on recreation and have ample space and equipment. They can be found in many private schools and in some public schools and YMCAs.

Before enrolling your child, find out where your dollars will go. Some profitmaking centers may use more of your money for staff salaries than children's materials. Some non-profit centers may channel more money directly into things for children, decreasing salaries in proportion to the number of children enrolled.

Business-operated centers may arrange hours to meet employees' needs, and may provide transportation between the care area and parents' offices. Some industry-related centers even cook breakfast for children.

If your child needs day care next year, start your wheels rolling row.

"We usually have a year-long waiting list, so parents need to apply soon!" says Nancy Watson, director of the Dorchester House Day Care/Preschool in Dorchester, Mass. And one infant center director notes that many women apply when pregnant -- since generally few infant centers are available.

Selecting the best day-care center for your child might even help to promote peace in the world.

"I would hope the center didn't discriminate against race," says Mrs. Crary, the Newton Center Day Care director. Hers certainly doesn't. It includes not only black and white children, but a colorful crew with Spanish, Greek, Russian, and Chinese back-grounds.

She continues: "A mixture of different ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities exposes children to broader views of their world, and teaches them to be open-minded and tolerant of others."

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