Leaving a small child in the care of a stranger for the first time can be heart-breaking for any mom. But you’ll find the whole business a lot less stressful if you can go to work knowing you’ve left your darling with someone you can really trust. It’s vital to take your time finding the right school or caregiver for your little one, because this is an important long-term decision that requires a lot of research, and a big dash of motherly instinct. Here’s how to go about asking the right questions so you can choose the perfect crèche, day-care centre, playschool or kindergarten:

General guidelines

  • Ask for word-of-mouth recommendations. There is no better way of judging a school’s suitability than the glowing praise of another parent you know and trust.
  • When seriously considering a school, ask them to provide the contact details of at least two parents whose kids attend the school, then phone or message these moms or dads to ask for detailed references.
  • Check that the school is appropriate for the age of your child. A toddler won’t cope in a group of boisterous five-year-olds, for example, and a four-year-old will be bored to tears in a room full of babies.
  • Ask for proof that the day-care centre or school is registered with the relevant authorities. Schools that are registered are required by law to have certain standards of hygiene, safety and care.
  • Top Tip: It makes sense to choose a school that is in your area. This will cut down on travelling time, and it will also allow your child – and you! – to make new friends in the neighbourhood in the years to come. It’s important to establish a network of nearby moms who can be relied on for babysitting and other favours when there’s a crisis in your day.

Your first visit to the school

It’s wise to make an unannounced visit to the school during a normal day (although it’s only fair to phone and let them know you’ll be popping in some time during the week). Here is a list of important questions to ask yourself (and the teachers) during your visit:
  • What is your general impression of the house or school? Is it clean, safe and comfortable? Is it baby-proof? Is the kitchen clean and tidy?
  • Are there good outdoor facilities, such as a jungle gym, sandpit or lawn? Are these well looked after? Tatty, broken equipment may mean the school doesn’t take your child’s safety seriously.
  • Is there adequate playground supervision? Ask whether there is always someone on duty in the playground. Small children should never be left alone outdoors while the adults in charge are busy with other duties.
  • Are the toilets clean and tidy? Is there soap, toilet paper and a separate, labelled facecloth for each child?
  • Is there a gate that locks securely, and, more important, is it kept locked at all times? If there is a pond or a swimming pool on the premises, it must have both a net and fence with a locked, self-closing gate. Dogs should be locked away too.
  • What is the classroom equipment like? Is it well organised? Are there plenty of books, blocks, construction toys, balls, puzzles and other educational tools? Are there sufficient art materials, such as paints, scissors and crayons?
  • Does the classroom look like an interesting, stimulating environment? Are there charts, posters and paintings on the walls?
  • Who are the staff members? What are their qualifications? How long have they been with the school? Do other adults live on the premises? Don’t be afraid to trust your intuition: if you ‘feel’ that something is not quite right, but can’t put your finger on it, look for another school.
  • How does the teacher greet your child? Does she lower herself to the child’s level, or give the child a hug? Does she seem to `connect’ with your child in a meaningful way?
  • Do the other children look happy, content and busy? What is the school’s policy towards discipline?
  • Do the staff have first-aid training? Is there a first-aid kit? Are the numbers of the emergency services pinned up next to the telephone? Does the school have an immunisation policy?
  • Finally, try not to be unduly influenced by the outer appearance of the school or centre. A school or day-mother’s house that looks a little messy and chaotic may offer a far more caring environment for your child than one that looks like a hospital. What does matter is that the place is clean, safe and well-maintained, that the environment is stimulating, and that the teachers or care-givers are loving, sympathetic, enthusiastic and genuinely fond of children. In short – just like you!