Many people look forward to the summer for its warm weather, vacations and activities, but many parents find themselves feeling dread as summer approaches and they have to find childcare for kids who aren’t in school.
As the need for both parents to be employed full-time has increased—63 percent of U.S. families have both parents working full time according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and most single parents have no other choice but to work full time, summers often leave a stressful gap in childcare. On top of the expense, the stress of finding somewhere trustworthy, the visits, interviews and waitlists—it’s all a lot to handle. If your kids are already in pre-school or an after-school program, that’s a great place to start as most will also offer some sort of summer care as well. But it will still be worth it to evaluate other programs and facilities as all summer childcare programs aren’t created equal.
When kids are spending full summer days at a childcare facility rather than just a couple hours after school, you want to be sure those days are packed with a good mix of physical activity, ongoing learning opportunities and most of all, fun! Other than budget and availability (which, let’s be honest, are big enough hurdles alone) here are some things to look for and questions to ask when you’re looking for the best summer programs for your kids.
Obviously you’re looking for cleanliness and order, as well as proper safety precautions, fire extinguishers and multiple exits. This should be a baseline for any facility. But for summer programs, look for facilities with ample outdoor space, playground, sports equipment and toys. If equipment isn’t provided, find out if it’s possible to bring in your own. Also look at the space itself and its suitability for your kids’ needs. Are classrooms separated by age group? Do they have an open concept space where it is easy for staff to keep an eye on all the children at once, or is the space divided? Are there spaces set aside for quiet time and eating?
Your staff to child ratios should be in accordance with state regulations and recommendations. That means for children aged one and under there should be one staff member for every three children. For ages 2-3, it can be one staff member to every four. For ages three and above, it should be no more than 13 children per staff member. Those ratios are important to ensure that there is always enough staff to properly pay attention to every child.
Staff should also be trained in early childhood development and education—which has been shown to have significant positive impact both on individual children and societies as a whole—and certified in pediatric emergency response and fire safety. They’re not just there to keep your kids alive; they’re there to help them thrive. So if it’s possible to have your children meet their potential future teachers and see how they interact, that can be a great way to judge how good a fit the program would be for your kids.
Find out the specifics of the summer program – what activities do they offer? How much outdoor time per day is allotted? Will there be organized sports and games or are kids left to play on their own? Is there a good mix of the two? Will there be field trips such as outings to public pools or water parks? Are there programs designed for specific interests and activities like dance or playing musical instruments?
The point of a summer childcare program isn’t just babysitting when they’re not in school. For busy working parents who might not be able to take their kids to the pool or the park, these programs give kids a chance to do all the same fun summer activities their friends do, with proper supervision.
Sure it’s summer break, but that doesn’t mean kids should put learning on hold. “Summer learning loss” is a real phenomenon—kids lose math and reading skills over the summer months if they’re not given opportunities to continue developing those skills.
That’s not to say you should be looking for summer programs that give math quizzes and assign book reports, but you should absolutely ask how the center intends to keep kids in learning mode even when they’re not in school. Do they offer designated reading time? Are there activities designed to help them develop critical thinking skills? What about arts and other creative endeavors?
There is plenty of research that underscores the need for proper nutrition to fuel learning, and that is no less true during the summer. Many summer programs provide breakfast and/or lunch for your children, so if that is an option for you, ask for specifics on the nutrition. USDA certifies food programs for a recommend balance of nutrients and energy specifically for kids, and participants are governed by certain parameters. Be sure that there are options to suit your kids’ specific nutritional needs.
Food allergies in children are also on the rise, so be sure to find out what their allergen policies and protocols are. For children with food allergies, do they have EpiPens onsite? Do they have restrictions on foods that can be brought in such as peanut butter? Even if your child doesn’t have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, it’s a great sign when a center makes it clear that they prioritize protecting the children who do.
Summer should be a time kids look back on fondly, a time when they get to play and explore and enjoy all it means to be a carefree kid. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up the proper nutrition and learning experiences that help them grow up happy, healthy and set up for success. Use the above guidelines to help find the summer child care center or program that can meet your child’s unique needs while staying within your budget and your expectations of care.