Why is quality child care so essential? Research is clear: Learning in the first five years of life is crucial for success in school and adulthood.
So ensuring quality in all settings is important, said Sharon Easterling, executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children.
“Wherever children are spending their time in the early years – with parents, in a child care program, with babysitters, or a combination – that is where early learning takes place. For young children ‘care’ and ‘education’ are inseparable,” Easterling said.
Definitions of quality usually involve a program’s structure and children’s actual experiences. Structure includes the number of children in a group, number of children per teacher, staff qualifications, space per child, and detailed health and safety elements.
The good news is that Pennsylvania licensing requirements capture these structural elements relatively well. If a program is licensed, it means that the provider meets at least minimum requirements of good care, especially regarding children’s health and safety. Always look for licensed programs to get that basic assurance.
The bad news is that while licensing may reduce the risk of harm, it does not ensure a high-quality experience.
Some programs also participate in a voluntary quality recognition system. There are many examples of these. Keystone STARS is Pennsylvania’s state-funded quality assessment system. NAEYC, Middle States, and NAFCC are some of the available private child care accreditations.
Easterling reports there are roughly 1,000 licensed child care centers in Philadelphia. About 35 of them are accredited. She estimates that fewer than 2 percent of Philadelphia’s children are enrolled in programs that achieved a STAR 4 (the highest) or STAR 3 in the Keystone STARS system.
Licensing and accreditation are important first steps in identifying high-quality care. However, observing in person is the only way to know that daily routines meet quality standards and meet a specific child’s needs.
It is not high quality when children spend much of the day in a large group, doing the same things, using materials selected by the teacher, and following instructions from the teacher with little interaction. Similarly, it is not high quality when children are in “free play” most of the time without meaningful interactions with teachers.
Quality experiences derive primarily from teacher-child interactions (see “Looking for quality"). What children learn from them is powerful. They learn to believe in themselves as learners and that it’s okay to make mistakes. They also learn the power of words, to respect their feelings and how to manage them, and about other people’s feelings.
One of the goals of high-quality child care is kindergarten readiness. In the free booklet Kindergarten is Key, the District offers a 55-item checklist of basic skills that adults can help children learn “before and during kindergarten [in] an ongoing process.” Personal observation is one way parents can assess whether a child care program supports those readiness skills.
To be ready for kindergarten, the checklist says a child should:
know his/her name and respond to it
know his/her age, gender, address, phone number, and family members’ names
know how to hold a book and turn pages
point to and name parts of the body as well as common articles of clothing, foods, animals, and coins
be able to point to things that are “the same” or “different”
know how to count 10 things
know left and right and relative sizes
know some words to describe things
The rest of this checklist covers social, self-help, and gross motor skills.
In the words of Albert Einstein, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”
High-quality early care and education provides children with experiences to gain the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
Child care referrals
For a free telephone child care resource and referral service in Philadelphia, call CCIS at 1-888-461-KIDS.