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Once upon a time: Imagining day care in a fantasy world [CA]

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Kubacki, Maria
Publication Date: 
28 Nov 2004

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In a perfect world, all children would be cared for by kind people who understand their needs. They would be in a home or day care that has lots of natural light, room to move and play, with a variety of toys and books that are periodically rotated.

Days would be neither chaotic nor regimented, but a balance of structure and openness. There would be indoor and outdoor play, active and quiet times, group and individual activities. Learning would occur in a holistic, child-centred way using toys and tools that develop creativity and independence.

There would be music and art, cooking and baking, maybe even gardening. There would be so much to do that there would be no need for television. They would be happy.

It sounds like a fantasy in a children's storybook, yet experts say these elements are hallmarks of good child care.

If this is the way your children spend their days then either you are a perfect stay-at-home parent or else you are lucky, or relatively affluent -- perhaps both -- and have found the perfect child-care arrangement.

Hold on to it, because in Canada there are no guarantees you'll find another one like it.

Often children end up bored, in cramped, makeshift spaces in church basements or strip malls, playing with toys and books that have been haphazardly picked up at garage sales -- all signs of bad child care, says
Martha Friendly, co-ordinator of the Child Care Resource and Research Unit at the University of Toronto.

Friendly contributed background research to a report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation that recently knocked Canada. Anyone who's picked up a newspaper in the last month knows the OECD was highly critical of Canadian early education and child care, which it characterized as seriously underfunded and only in the initial stages of development.

It called our system a "patchwork of uneconomic, fragmented services, within which a small 'child-care' sector is seen as a labour market support, often without a focused child development and education role."

With the promise of $5 billion over the next five years, the federal government is laying the groundwork for a national, early childhood education plan. But it will be a long and costly process if Quebec's experience is any indication.

In the meantime, parents will be left to find good child care themselves but, according to the OECD, few know what indicates quality.

So what exactly does good child care look like?

It might look something like the Glebe Parents' Day Care, one of Ottawa's most reputable and expensive centres. It incorporates in its design, programming, policy and staffing many of the elements of good child care that Canadian experts like Friendly and University of British Columbia psychologist Hillel Goelman tell parents to look for.

Federal Minister of Social Development Ken Dryden turned out recently for a photo op at the centre, which he praised in an interview with the Citizen. It's so well-regarded that prospective mothers call to secure a spot when they're just thinking about getting pregnant.

Get a guided tour and you may come away with a case of day-care envy. Located steps from the Rideau Canal, the day care, which was originally in a community centre basement, is housed in a rambling, red brick, "purpose built" structure designed with child care in mind. Shaded by large trees and surrounded by a wooden fence, it looks inviting and not institutional. Inside, each room is different, from the small but sunny and cheerful infant room to the irregular shaped kindergarten space on the second floor with its sloping ceilings, nooks and crannies, and a dramatic play area that changes but is currently set up as a house, with a real bed and bedside table.

The basement houses a huge indoor "gross motor" play area, with cars and tricycles and Little Tykes play structures surrounded by mats.

There are dance classes for toddlers, a music program and, for the kindergarten and preschool kids, field trips to museums, the National Arts Centre or, in summer, to Lac Philippe in Gatineau Park.

Because about 50 per cent of spaces are subsidized, the centre serves the larger community. Children from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds come from all over the city.

According to Goelman, the lead author of a study in 2000 comparing quality in child-care services across the country, "the quality of staff equals the quality of care." The Glebe Parents' Day Care staff, who are paid about $18 an hour, have been trained in early-childhood education, and unlike the majority of child-care workers in Canada, are unionized.

The centre is a co-operative run by a board made up of staff, parents and community members. It offers an array of programs, including after-school child care, home day-care service and a drop-in centre.

Dryden says he likes that the centre is "a hub."

In a perfect world, there would be child care this good for all Canadian children. And it would be affordable. For the most needy, it would even be free. It sounds like a fantasy, but experts say it's the very least we can do. As Goelman says, "Why do we have to settle for the least worst?"

- reprinted from the Ottawa Citizen

Entered Date: 
3 Dec 2004
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