Noah is nearly one, and my maternity leave is nearly over. I have been looking at nurseries recently, and the difference between them is staggering. It’s hard to pick somewhere that I want to send my boys to, and know that they’ll be looked after and we’ll all be happy while I’m at work.
James was in a nursery while I was in work before leaving for my maternity leave to have Noah, so I have had some experience of looking around day care facilities.
I visited so many, but I did have a definite favourite.
I thought it might be handy to compile a list of things to look out for or ask if you are also viewing child care centres soon.
How easy is it to view the nursery?
One of the key things I found was how easy it is to make an appointment to view. Some establishments have an online booking form, others you have to telephone. One place (a national chain) wouldn’t let us book an appointment to view our local centre until we’d received the brochure in the post. I asked what was going to be new information that was only available in the brochure and not the website, and the answer was “the prices”. I’m not sure why the prices can’t be available upfront, and I’m not sure why it impacts on whether or not you can make an appointment to view.
Although there’s a temptation to turn up, unannounced, and see if you can be shown around, resist! All the little children there need to be safeguarded, and it may take staff away from the children for you to be shown around. Most nurseries we found have set times for visits- say, at 10am or 2pm each day. One of the best settings we looked at needed notice of a visit, but were happy to accommodate our day and routine. For us, 10am and 2pm are Noah’s nap times!
I would hope that the manager or person in charge would take the time out to show you around, not just a junior member of staff, and would look for evidence of them interacting with and knowing the children’s names in the rooms you visit – this shows they really know and take an interest in their charges not only just when parents are around. I visited one setting where I’d made an appointment, but still waited for ten minutes while they found someone to show me around. That did not give me a good first impression!
How do the nursery staff interact?
Talk to the staff as you go around; if they say hello and look you in the eye that is good. Some of the nurseries we visited the staff didn’t interact with us at all on the visit. I took both boys with me on most of the visits, and on more than one occasion James was ignored or patronised, so those places are out!
It’s good to watch how the children interact with one another and the staff. We looked around all the rooms, too, even the baby rooms, though Noah was too old for most of the tiny baby rooms. I saw one child wide awake and trying to interact with staff, but stuck in a baby swing facing away from the staff member in the room. I couldn’t, in all honesty, say that made me feel confident the needs of my children would be met, particularly as this was a place with “visiting hours” and so you’d think they’d put their best foot forward in times like that.
How much does the nursery feel like home?
I also am very interested in things like how they get them to nap – will the staff cuddle to sleep if needed, or just shut away in a dark room?
The smell of the place is something I couldn’t avoid – in some of the rooms the stink of dirty nappies was like fingers that clung in my nose as soon as I arrived. Not pleasant!
What is the outside space like? Are all children given outside time during the day? Are the children able to choose when they go outside, or is it strictly adult-led?
I’d also ask how they manage little ones who take time to settle. Some nurseries have strict one-hour settling in sessions, while others will be child and parent-led, and allow as many free-of-charge sessions as are needed until you all feel confident.
How will you communicate with nursery about your child?
Communication is absolutely key between home and nursery. I really struggled with this when James was in nursery, as his whole day boiled down to what was written in two lines in his book at handover time. His current child care setting uses an online resource where the staff can upload photos and observations taken during the day, and match them to the EYFS curriculum. I can also upload photos or videos during the week so they can get a more rounded picture of his life, and therefore tailor his time there to match his interests.
Are there other things that are important to you and your child? For us I’m keen that nursery will support Noah’s baby signing, give a good amount of outdoor time, and try to parent in a similar style to us.
What’s the food like at nursery?
What are the meals like? I visited one place that proudly told me, “we cook all our meals from scratch using ingredients you’d find in your kitchen at home”, while another (equally as proudly) informed me all the food was delivered by ASDA each week. I was very interested in meal times – for example, will the children be able to lead eating their food, or will the adults spoon feed them? I know of one nursery chain who does not permit “baby led weaning” and will puree all food until a specific age. Does that fit with the way you’ve introduced food to your child?
What does your gut say?
Gut feeling is important. Don’t get distracted by shiny new things that look good. I’d rather have a good standard of care, and happy staff in a rubbish building than a pretty shiny building and unhappy unmotivated staff providing bad care.
That having been said, the building can really impact on the way the children can interact or use the spaces – I visited one nursery that was very cramped and it felt like there were too many children in one room, but actually the activity being undertaken was very exciting and all the kids from that room were joining in, and leaving a lot of the space for that age group empty.
Read the Ofsted report, but bear in mind the date of the last inspection and compare it with your visit. A friend chose her child’s nursery based only on the Ofsted report of ‘Outstanding’, but she has so many gripes now, and no time to find a new place for her son.
What kind of extras are important to you? Another of my friends picked a day care setting because their child will learn French, and they’ve got a holiday home in France. In another friend’s nursery, they have a hairdresser visit, so that you haven’t got to dash about doing things like that when you’re off work and spending time together as a family.
We eventually went for a combination of ‘gut feeling’ and logistics. We looked at so many. The one nearest to home we just didn’t like. Another great nursery always has a massive queue of traffic to reach it, and after a tiring day, and an already very long commute, I’m not up for negotiating more heavy traffic.
Ultimately, though, it’s more a personal decision, and try and not worry too much – you can change your mind if you decide that it’s not the right choice for your child!!