So you’re a new parent, and you’ve been in a state of delight since your little one arrived!
Now that she’s a bit older, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder which child care arrangements will help her to develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially — and which one will be the right fit for your family.
There are many factors that affect the choices available to parents as they determine the best path for their family. Financial needs, work schedules, and the increasingly pressure-filled educational environment all play a role in how parents decide which early childhood setting is best for their child and family.
Family structures and needs vary widely (from single- or two-parent, working households to stay-at-home parents), so it’s important to keep in mind that children’s needs can be met through a variety of pathways. No one environment — at home with a parent or nanny, in a home-based family provider, or in a formal setting with a day care/preschool — precludes your child from having a comprehensive early childhood experience.
The key is to understand what each path has to offer and to seek intentional balance in the activities you choose to supplement your child’s experiences. Understanding the benefits and limitations of each option will enable you to set her up for success in future academic environments.
Early Childhood Experiences
The most important lessons of early childhood come from your child’s interactions with other people. She needs to learn how to interact and negotiate with other children, and to be given the freedom to make choices so she becomes a confident decision-maker. She requires an environment that values behavioral and emotional intelligence as building blocks for teaching her about the world. Curiosity about academics — reading, writing, math — will develop as she explores, learns, and grows in a setting that promotes her self-confidence.
Providing your child with early socialization experiences, opportunities to build her knowledge based on her own curiosity, and positive guidance will set the stage for learning in years to come.
Each early childhood setting has its strengths. Your job is to explore the different choices to determine which option is best for your family, and to understand the best ways to ensure your child gets a well-rounded experience in whichever path you decide on.
Stay-at-Home Parent or Nanny
Being in your own home — or homeschooling — was once the norm for most early childhood learners, and today there is growing interest in this approach for children of all ages.
Home learning environments allow for individualized education and richer experiences than what can be offered in many formal educational settings. One of the joys homeschoolers often speak about is being able to expand their learning outside of four walls and into the world whenever they wish.
If you choose to stay home with your child while she is young — or opt to have a nanny care for her — there are a wealth of opportunities to provide her with enriching early learning experiences. Taking her for walks in nature, visiting museums or science centers, exploring tourist sites — all of these will enhance her growth. Moreover, the resources available through technology ensure that you don’t need to be an expert in every area to give her a broad and deep set of experiences.
The Importance of Socializing
Though teaching your young child at home provides the opportunity to tailor her learning to specific interests, you’ll need to make a deliberate effort to ensure she socializes with other children. Playgrounds, play dates, and group lessons or activities offer ideal opportunities for her to develop the social skills she’ll need to succeed.
The challenges of being part of a group begin in early childhood, and learning how to deal with other individuals is a vital lesson. Your child needs to understand that other people may have different points of view, and learning how to cope with the emotions that come from negotiating a social environment are an important part of her young development.
Home-Based Family Provider
Alternatively, you may decide that you want your child to experience a home-like environment, even if it’s not in your own home. In this case, you can explore early childhood caregivers who provide day care in their homes professionally.
Such settings typically have fewer children than a preschool class, but they will provide your child with the opportunity to interact with kids from other families. Depending upon the state in which you live, licensed home care providers are usually required to attend continuing education classes to ensure that they understand the most current information about working with young children.
States have a variety of regulations regarding day care and preschools; you can check each set of guidelines by going to the National Resource Center For Health & Safety in Child Care and Early Education website.
The Benefits of Multi-Age Groups
One benefit of these settings is that they often include children of different ages — from infancy to pre-K — who are learning and socializing together. Multi-age environments may appeal to you, in part, because they harken back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
Historically, as increasing numbers of students attended formal schools, this model became difficult to sustain. Students today are divided by age because communities sought a means for organizing the growing numbers of learners. While age-based classes solved this problem, it’s not always the best way to group children. Kids grow at their own rates, and having a place where they can fit in regardless of their current developmental abilities — as home care settings offer — adds to their sense of belonging and confidence.
The Limitations of Home Care
Multi-age home settings may make it more difficult for providers to enhance children’s learning with trips or exposure to larger groups. As with stay-at-home parents, you will need to supplement your child’s care with “big world” experiences so that she sees how the concepts she is learning in her home care setting connect to other areas of her life.
If you opt for this arrangement, your child will also need to meet peers who are not part of her daily routine. Young children who spend years together in a cozy, home-setting may develop sibling-like relationships more readily than if they were in a larger class in a preschool. Plan to build in time for her to play with other kids so that she develops the social skills she needs to engage with other peers and to feel confident in broader social situations.
A search for “the importance of preschool” online returns many articles discussing both the significance of these years in a child’s life and the necessity of funding preschools to expand access for all children who want to attend. In today’s pressure-filled academic world, many parents choose formal preschool or day care settings, at least in part to ensure that their children have the academic and social foundations for success in the years ahead. One of the strengths of this option is that it mimics the educational experiences that most children will have as they get older.
Children learn best (in fact we all do!) when we are interested and when our senses are engaged. As you tour preschools — and I highly recommend visiting them in person — and review their curricula, look for opportunities for your child to be engaged in a variety of ways. Does the classroom have different areas in which children can play? Build? Read? Draw or paint? Is there time and space for children to go outdoors? Moreover, some preschools and day care programs may have the funding and staffing to take children on field trips or to bring in interesting visitors, such as a music teacher or a storyteller.
You also want to pay attention to how the teachers and staff engage with the children. What methods does the teacher use to instruct her students? How does she guide their behavior? How does she balance the needs of so many youngsters? Is she alone in the class, or does she have assistant teachers or other adults helping?
You can find a many different types of preschool programs, each with its own philosophy, culture, and teaching approach. Consider whether each school’s educational and social goals match your own.
The Time Back at Home
If your child spends many hours in a large group, it’s also important that you build in some quiet time for her each day. She needs to process what she did and what took place, and to have periods during which she doesn’t have to contend with the needs of others. She’ll need “me” time with you, as well as quality engagement with your entire family.
Whatever choice you make for the education and care of your child, remember that the decision needn’t be a multi-year commitment. You can try the option that seems like the best fit for your family and change it if it isn’t working out.
You will always be your child’s best advocate, and a positive early childhood learning experience lays the foundation for her future success.
If you're interested in either home-based care or a formal education program, you can use Noodle to search for preschools and home-based child care near you. You can also find advice from homeschool experts and other early childhood educators.