How to pick the best day care

Marilyn McCall, director of the My School child care center at 2720 SW 2nd Ave., sings songs with children in teacher Renee Debose's class on Friday. McCall said it's also important to find the right center for a child's stage of development.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The child-care center came highly recommended, the kind of established, well-credentialed operation Pamela Pallas figured would be perfect for her 3-year-old daughter.

But based on the director's reaction to Pallas' daughter's nervous tears the first few days, Pallas left and never returned, despite the center's good reputation.

"The teacher said, 'She's just going to have to learn to deal,' when she started crying," said Pallas, who's now the director of Baby Gator Child Development and Research Center and a professor of early childhood education at the University of Florida. "I thought, 'No, she doesn't.' I was looking for someone who would nurture my child, not give her ultimatums. And I just felt that it was not a good match."

Pallas said the experience, which happened nearly 30 years ago, underscores the difficulty of choosing a safe day-care center with an environment that suits a child's personality.

"It's important to look for a good match between the child's needs and what the center has to offer," Pallas said. "I think parents know their children best. They know whether their child would do better in a smaller center with more adult attention or a larger center with a wide array of activities and more kids."

Paul Myers, director of the Alachua County Health Department's Environmental Health section, said searching public records for inspection reports is a good place to start.

Myers said files that show long histories of serious violations and of complaints against the center should raise a parent's concerns.

"You would especially want to look for a common thread to complaints - if they're all ratio violations; if they're all teachers yelling at kids; if they're all about injuries that were not reported to parents," Myers said. "If you see a thread like that, that's reason to take a hard look at whether you want to put your child in that environment"

Marilyn McCall, director of My School child care center at 2720 SW 2nd Ave., said even if a center's inspection reports look perfect, it's important to check out the facility in person.

There are some obvious red flags, McCall said, such as unsupervised children and facilities that look unclean or unsafe.

Subtle signs are important, too, Pallas said. She said she always checked for a television when visiting day-care centers.

"If you see a big TV and a stack of videos in a prominent place, that should tell you something," Pallas said. "If that's something you feel would satisfy your child, great. If you'd rather your child were playing in a sandbox, it's a good thing to watch for."

McCall said it's also important to find the right center for a child's stage of development. She said parents looking for a day care for an infant may want to consider a family day-care home, while a traditional child-care center may be best for a toddler or older child.

"At a home day-care center, an infant is going to come in contact with fewer children, which means fewer germs," McCall said. "Also, in a home, you have a continuity of care that you would not necessarily have in a center, which may be a better fit for an older child. A home has one main provider who's there every day, while in a center the staff is more interchangeable, both because of staff turnover and shift work."

Myers said the most important part of ensuring a child is safe in his or her day-care center comes after the enrollment papers are signed.

"Parents need to stay involved," Myers said. "Go visit the center. Ask your child questions. Talk to the teachers. Like anything else, parental involvement is more important than just about anything else."

Amy Reinink can be reached at 352-374-5088 or

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