There are almost 12 million infants and toddlers in the United States. According to the National Survey of American Families, more than six million children under age 3 spend time in child care on a regular basis (Urban Institute, 2001). This trend has had important repercussions on the first three years of life, says a recent National Research Council report, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. “ Second only to the immediate family, child care is the context in which early childhood unfolds, starting in infancy” (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000, p. 297). Yet the quality of care to very young children in the United States is far from adequate.
It is time to redesign child care. From decades of research and practice, we know many ways to enhance the child care experience so that it will support the healthy development of infants and toddlers. Seven principles can guide parents, program leaders, and policymakers in shaping this new image of child care.
- Child care is an opportunity. The reality is that children in the United States spend many hours in out-of-home settings. The argument for investing is straight forward. It is common sense to take advantage of the opportunity that child care provides to promote education and to reach out to parents.
- Regardless of the age of the child and the setting, child care is not exclusively a “home” or a “school.” Child care is a “third setting” that has value in and of itself. Because children spend long hours in care, it must reflect the comfort of the home, yet it must include experiences to promote education. The educational experiences that children have in child care are not a substitute for school, but rather should compliment and support the entrance into school or the regular school day. The goal of education in child care should be broadly defined, reflecting a developmental approach to learning that integrates the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of children at each stage of their lives.
- Child care for young children is not the same as child care for school-age children. Like the little red schoolhouse, the term child care has been used to refer to services for children from birth through early adolescence. In the new era, we need to differentiate our image of child care for younger children from that for school-age children, because planning, staffing, and oversight differ among these developmental stages.
- The heart of any good child care program is the relationship between the children and the provider, and the relationship between the parents and the provider. For young children as well as school-age children, child care must include supportive adults who help guide and mentor children while they learn. Providers themselves must be supported with adequate working conditions so that they in turn have the resources to nurture the development of children and support the family.
- Child care is not an isolated service for children; rather, it should be seen as a hub of support for families. Child care providers cannot work in isolation from the families they serve nor from the communities where they live. Instead, child care can serve as a doorway for delivery of a range of services that families need. In addition, child care must reflect the diverse needs of families, which means that a range of good choices must be offered.
- Child care is not a private responsibility, but must be a public service. Like any public utility, child care requires public financing to provide access to all families. It cannot continue to be funded by parents alone or financed on the backs of child care providers. We need an infusion of public support to make it work.
- Because child care supports children and families, it is everyone’s business to get involved. Child care is a community-building endeavor that can help promote greater civic engagement and create stronger links between cultures and across the generations.
Excerpted from Lombardi, J. (2003). Time to care: Redesigning child care. Zero to Three 25, 4.