Choosing the right early childcare environment

childcare, early childcare, Phoenix, Arizona, how to choose, day care, preschool

Some decisions are easier than others: Should I let my child go to school wearing a Batman cape? (Yes.) Should I make good on my threat to turn this car around right now? (No.) Is it really OK to serve pancakes for dinner? (Yes!) Parents make as many daily decisions as there are Legos on the floor, and most decisions are made as quickly as a bowl of Cheerios drops from a highchair.

One decision, however, is not easy: What type of early-care environment is best for my child?

Some parents face this question soon after welcoming their little one, and others have a few years to ponder their options. Most parents have common concerns about leaving a child in someone else’s care.

Childcare, daycare, preschool…what’s the difference?

First of all, childcare and daycare are synonymous, but many care providers prefer the term “childcare” for its focus on the child. Adding to the confusion, some childcare providers offer a preschool program, and some preschools have extended-care hours.

“The primary difference between a preschool and childcare is often a matter of hours served and the focus of the program,” says Leslie Totten, director of Quality First for Arizona’s First Things First program. (First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early-education and health programs to help kids succeed once they enter kindergarten.) “Most typical preschool programs function for a shorter period of time and spend a good majority of it on intentional learning activities.”

Totten says childcare programs function for longer periods of the day to help support working families who need a full day’s care for their children.

Childcare programs also focus on intentional learning activities but include time for meals, naps, extended free play and outdoor activities, she says.
“It’s not a question of which is better or worse,” Totten adds, “but just different offerings to suit families’ needs.”

Should you consider in-home childcare or a childcare center?

Shannon Powell, founder of TotSpot Preschool in Gilbert and Chandler, notes both advantages and disadvantages to in-home childcare: “In-home care is typically more affordable, and it may be more convenient if it’s in your neighborhood.”

Children can go on outings with the caregiver, Powell says, and there typically are fewer children in an in-home setting, which can mean reduced exposure to illnesses.

One of the downsides to in-home care is providers often aren’t closely regulated (for such things as staff-child ratios and safety), and the caregiver most likely does not have a background check or fingerprint-clearance card, she says.

“In addition, you have no control over the individuals who come in and out of the caregiver’s home,” Powell adds.

Facility-based care can have more of an institutional feel, but parents can benefit from longer hours, additional staff members with professional development requirements, structured schedules and more stringent regulations.

How can I spot a good early childcare program?

As director of Quality First, Totten’s mission is to help ensure standards in early-care settings across the state.

“A high-quality early-childhood environment has several characteristics, including skilled teachers (who) know how to engage young learners,” she says. She also mentions the importance of indoor and outdoor environments that are safe, child-centered, stimulating and well-stocked with materials.

“Other markers of program quality are predictable and balanced daily schedules and routines, an evidence-based, culturally responsive curriculum, supportive assessments of each child’s progress and ample opportunities for family involvement,” Totten says.

Quality First partners with early-childhood care providers to improve program offerings, and it uses star ratings to measure program quality. (Note: Participation in Quality First is voluntary, and there’s a waiting list for providers to join. Many good programs are not part of the Quality First network.)

What should I look for in an early childcare setting?

“First of all, ask to do a drop-in tour,” Powell suggests. “If they refuse, my opinion is to walk away.”

Powell suggests parents ask questions about staff-to-children ratios, which are regulated. For example, according to Title 9, Chapter 5 of the Arizona Administrative Code, there should be at least one adult per eight 2-year-olds and one adult per 15 4-year-olds.

She also suggests asking about staff qualifications and how long staff members have worked there. “I would personally shy away from a center that has a really high turnover rate,” Powell says.

Lastly, she recommends checking the center’s licensing records for violations and complaints.

“All centers receive an unannounced inspection every year,” Powell says. “If they have more than a couple minor citations, they are probably not a good center with good management.”

Quality First also offers a Quality Checklist of questions to ask and things to look for when visiting a provider, including the classroom and outdoor environments, teacher-child interactions and other basic elements of good child care and preschool settings. The checklist makes it easier for parents to recognize positive, nurturing teacher-child interactions and ample space and materials that encourage learning and play.

But perhaps the most important measure of a program’s quality can be found in your gut. After all, with all the decisions you make in a day, you’ve developed a certain instinct about what feels right and what feels wrong when it comes to your children. Your instinct may not prevent you from stepping on Legos or failing to catch a falling bowl of Cheerios, but it will help guide some of the bigger decisions, such as finding an early-care environment where your child can be happy and grow.

Tips for finding good childcare:

  • Ask about the qualifications of the director and teachers.
  • Watch teachers interact with students: Are they at eye level with the children? Do they smile and make eye contact? Do they encourage children to talk?
  • Look for books, blocks, puzzles and items for pretend play.
  • Look for a good, shaded outdoor play area.
  • Ask how teachers deal with challenging behaviors.
  • Download the Quality First checklist.
  • Research childcare facilities at, a searchable database that contains information on deficiencies found at Arizona facilities licensed by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Looking for a preschool?

Search the directory of metro-Phoenix preschools.