Learning and knowing all your childcare options as a first-time parent is pretty tricky. Combing through your many, many care options-even as a seasoned parent is still quite the endeavor!
As an independent, specialized care model [walk-in care], we often take calls from exasperated parents not knowing quite where to go, or what they really need. They usually only know they need "something" and they either need it "today!" or "tomorrow morning?" ...Even after setting these calls up for back-up care, we spend a great deal of time on the line answering more general care questions and informing them, while trying not to overwhelm these families with the magnitude of options that our state is lucky to have.
As I said, Minnesota is quite lucky compared to most of the rest of the country; Minnesota takes early childhood and early childhood education very seriously. Our standards for licensed childcare programs are high; MN mandates lower ratios than many of our bordering neighbor states, we also require higher degree and education requirements for staff qualification, and we have many state-sponsored resources designed to help both parents and early childhood educators do the best job they can.
Because we are so well-equipped and well resourced, the most basic information can get lost in the mix. Here is a more detailed version of the breakdown we give parents on the phone, when we teach them about some of the most popular care options. Also included are some the most widely known 'pros' and 'cons' of each arrangement. Please keep in mind, this is not meant to be all inclusive, but rather a snap shot of the major differences and takeaways.
Traditional Child Care Center
Definition: A facility designed specifically for professional child care to take place outside of a child's home. Children are usually transported to the facility by their guardians.
Note: These programs usually operate independently outside of any school district calendar. This is helpful if parents have limited PTO or inflexible work schedules, and/or need care to before and after a Guardian's work hours.
Pros: Licensed programs have hundreds of health and safety requirements to meet and are evaluated annually for compliance. Staff are trained and educated in Early Childhood and Child Development. A full day of care is part of the arrangement. Trained caregivers can bolster child development as well as identify deviations from expected development patterns, thus trained to refer you to interventions quickly, if needed. This is the most reliable care option with very few/scheduled closures and back-up caregivers built-in to cover illness and teacher vacations. This option has the most slots of availability per location. Best for children that enjoy novelty and needs more stimulation and new faces, as children change rooms/teachers as they move up in age.
Cons: due to the educational staff, licensing, and insurance requirements, this can be the the most expensive option for formal care. Some children might not acclimate quickly to group care. Staffing can change often based on the facility's needs. Some programs or specific classrooms are prone to high staff turn-over (toddler rooms). Payment is usually required regardless of attendance as you're paying for your spot in the group and not by attendance.
We are a hybrid; Hour Kids combines traditional care with drop-in care and walk-in care. For us, "Drop-in Care" is when you send in all your needed dates ahead of time. "Walk-in care" is same day but subject to availability. All options take place in our structured, age-specific, classrooms.
Definition: Licensed child care provided in a home-setting, away from the child's home (unless the provider has their own children in the program).
Note: This type of care is what people are beginning to know as and call as true "daycare" while center-based care is getting differentiated as "Childcare" by industry leaders and state entities. Those of us in the field do prefer to be differentiated. You can tell when a program is strong by asking for references and when you tour, by paying attention to the environment; you want to see clearly defined learning areas, items in good repair and age-appropriate toys and decor as well as a posted and valid license from the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS).
Pros: There are thousands of great in-home providers across our state. Many hold degrees in Early Childhood and Child Development and just wanted to do their own thing. Or they have been providing care in their homes for decades and have priceless experience and expertise. In-home caregivers can really tailor their programs to their communities, and their own visions. They range from "school-like" to FFN-like, but with a license. Any variation can be a good fit for a variety of families.
Cons: When the provider is sick or on vacation, often the program is closed and parents usually will take the time off from work, or they make alternate care arrangements if they can't. Good for children that are resistant to change, as they have the same provider and environment for as long as they're in care. Payment is usually required regardless of attendance as you're paying for your spot in the group and not by attendance. Mixed ages for care means sometimes it's difficult to balance care when a group has children in all age ranges from infants to after-schoolers, only very experienced 'career' in-home providers can manage with ease.
School District Care/Preschool
Definition: Childcare with school district-specified curriculum embedded within. Parents or buses typically transport children to these programs.
Note: District preschool is usually on a half-day and alternating day model. District preschool is primarily designed to get children kindergarten ready in a highly regulated environment. As the most formal "preschool" model, the focus is on academic testing and meeting scores for readiness. Most quality traditional childcare centers also have formal "preschool" built-in and use the same state-approved curriculum(s) for school readiness- however, many parents don't realize this and think it's much different.
Pros: District-based preschool is a great option for parents that don't need a full day of learning for their children as it is usually half-days. This option can be free for some families. This learning model can efficiently introduce children to a formal learning environment. Often children will attend in the physical location they will attend Kindergarten in.
Cons: With limited hours, parents will often need care before and after as well as transportation to after-school care. Schools are limited in resources and parents will often need to supply school supplies and meals. District-based early learning can be very tied to scores and achievement at a time that others argue our youngest children are not ready for. Can be overly structured and not a good fit for all children, especially the youngest. Payment is usually required regardless of attendance as you're paying for your spot in the group and not by attendance.
Definition: a paid house-hold employee that cares for a family's child/ren.
Note: You will want to make sure your Nanny comes from a reputable company and/or is background checked. You may need to create a routine or structured day for your Nanny or ask them to.
Pros: Care can be specific to individual children and family schedules. Very little illness exposure (a high degree of Kindergarten illness absence may be the trade-off for this), Specific diet or allergy-friendliest care, care is in the child's home, sometimes while parents work from home and can supervise. Only one caregiver in addition to parents.
Cons: Your Nanny is considered a household employee, you will need to provide your Nanny with tax withholding or a 1099 Independent Contractor form so you are not liable for their tax reporting. If your Nanny becomes sick, goes on vacation, or stops showing up, you will need to find alternate care. Private Nannies do not have to disclose driving records or educational records, but do if hired through an agency. Payment is based on attendance and can be reduced or increased accordingly.
"FFN Care" (family/friend/neighbor)
Definition: Can be a formal or informal arrangement usually between families that know each other well, are related or live near each other.
Note: When grandparents do this type of care, ECFE is a great supplemental option where children can be socialized and still have a familiar face around. These classes can be found in city community ed. publications. Also, in Minnesota people that provide FFN care can only legally care for one additional family at a time, if they remain unlicensed.
Pros: Tends to be most affordable, most flexible, or most comfortable if you are unsure of traditional formal care options. This arrangement is flexible to caregiver's style/objectives and what the parent wants.
Cons: Not regulated for health and/or safety or by licensing entities. No background check is required, usually based in trust or familiarity. Un-related caregivers sometimes quit the arrangement with little notice or warning. Payment is based on attendance and can be reduced or increased accordingly.
After spending 19 years in the field of Early Childhood, I have cared for HUNDREDS of children, whether it was in my licensed in-home program, through nannying, teaching FFN children at an ECFE class, or during my Early Childhood internship (in a school distrct-based program), I strongly feel that whatever option you decide is best for your family, do know that every option here requires a bit of research, commitment and your support for your caregivers. These relationships can be strengthened by open, and frequent communication with clear expectations set for both sides.
Best of luck!