It's so hard choosing an Early Years setting for your child isn't it. Whether you want a child minder, preschool or nursery, you're bound to have lots of questions. As an Early Years Specialist who taught before having my little boy I would show parents around the school so I know what it's like from the educators point of view. But I am also now a parent and have viewed Early Years settings for my child to attend. So I am sharing my experience with you. It is my personal opinion and how I chose our childcare. It's a BIG decision, so I just hope I can help!
OK, think of it like buying a house, you will have a list of all the things you want from the new house. You know deep down you won't get all the things on your list but you need to decide beforehand, which are priorities and which are a bonus.
When looking at an Early Years setting, you need to approach it in the same way. Before you visit the setting, think about what exactly you want from the setting and then what would be a bonus. Then visit the setting and try to look for evidence to 'tick off' all those things on your list.
You will probably have heard other parents opinions about the setting before you go, and they are certainly worth considering. However I would refrain from reading an Ofsted report until after you have visited. I personally prefer to go with an open mind so I can focus on the things important to my family. After the visit, if you read the report and if it leaves you with questions, there's no reason why you can't ring, email or arrange to talk to the staff again.
Of course the basics are the essentials. A setting MUST keep the children, safe, fed, watered and happy. That goes without saying. And my first piece of advice is to trust your instincts. If you don't get a good feeling, even if you can't put your finger on what it is, it's not the place for you. Trust your gut, don't compromise!
When choosing a setting for my little boy, something that really stood out for me was when a setting would invite us to call in at anytime to visit with no appointment. I love this. This tells me they have nothing to hide, they won't be putting on a front for a visitor and that I would be seeing the 'everyday'. It's little things like that, that make the difference!
So, here's a few things that I personally would look for when visiting an Early Years setting. I hope they can help you! Please note, I have purposefully put them in this order based on their priority!
1. Your child
They are your world, your absolute everything. So, they come first. They must remain the priority! They need to be at the centre of everything when choosing the setting. The setting needs to suit your child and their needs, and certainly never that the child needs to suit the setting!
Nobody knows your child like you do. You know what makes them tick so it's important you shout up for what they need. It's not only about their interests, it's about how they function and how they learn. And it's also worth thinking about the long term. Try not to think about how the setting suits your child at that moment, try to think about the future. Your child will grow and change quickly in a short amount of time and you need the setting to be able to support them as they do so.
You want your child to continue their thirst for learning, you want them to say Wow! So remember to ask yourself, is this setting going to inspire and ignite my child's desire to learn, play and explore? Or is it going to put them off? Because, once they've lost that love of learning, it's hard to get it back!
2. You, the parent
As a parent you will also have preferences and want to see certain things in the setting. Healthy eating might be big on your agenda, so look for evidence of how they support this. Do they grow vegetables? Do they cook with the children? And how do they eat at mealtimes? Is it a social event, where the children sit together with the adults modelling how to eat a meal?
(Sorry, quick story! I once visited a setting when I was teaching and was told that they were making vegetable soup that day with the children. "Lovely!" I thought. So many learning opportunities, looking and touching the vegetables, learning knife skills chopping them up, how to be healthy, all the mathematical learning talking about timing the soup, measuring, size of the pan etc. This is going to be great! Hmmmm, that wasn't the case. I sat and observed the adult boil a kettle, open a packed of powered vegetable soup and mix the two together!!! I know, not a vegetable in sight!!! Need I say more, I think you can imagine my reaction! So look at photos on the walls, pictures and drawings, they will tell you a lot!!)
Personally, for me I want my son to come out of his childcare at the end of the day, grubbier than he went in! It's important to me. You might like your child to be clean and take care of their clothes but personally I want to see he's been digging in the mud, constructing in the sand pit and exploring paint with his hands. I want to see he's spent the day exploring the world around him in a variety of ways, that's just whats important to me!
3. What are the kids doing?
How are the children playing? How are they using the setting, moving around? Do they appear happy, relaxed, engaged and respecting their environment? Are they encouraged to be independent learners or do they rely on the adults? Take a moment during your visit to stop and just watch the children. Try and watch for at least 10 minutes, watch the quiet ones, watch the loud ones. You'll be amazed, this will tell you a lot!
Of course, it's reassuring to meet warm and friendly staff but I would also watch how the adults behave with the children. Are they at the same level as the children playing, interacting and supporting them or are they stood supervising? What would you prefer to see? How do they talk to the children? And how do they talk about the children? Do they have a positive relationship with the children? And finally, how do they react to a distressed child? This can tell you a lot about the adults working in the setting
4. The setting (also known as The Learning Environment)
Firstly, resources. What do they have available for the children to play and work with? Don't be fooled if they have wall to ceiling of stored toys etc because they are worthless unless they are played with. Whether they have a lot or a little, it's how they use them. Are the activities inspiring? Would you want to play? Are the activities available to the children thought through and planned for or is it put out because it's easy? Ask how they plan the activities and cater for the children's interests. Also, a big one for me is the range of opportunities. Are there places where your child can create, pretend, talk, explore, use their senses and space to be independent?
Additional to this, what is happening outside? It's one thing to say that 'the children go out whatever the weather' but if when you visit, nothing is set up because there's a chance it might rain then that will tell you the truth! Children need access to the outdoors and this is a requirement of Early Years settings. But it's also worth looking at what they are doing out there. The outdoors should mirror in the inside. There should be opportunities for your children to practise many of the same skills, so how are they providing for that? It doesn't need to be fancy or brand spanking new equipment because we all know how amazing an old washing up bowl and kitchen utensils can be outside.
It's also worth, if you can, driving past the setting at different times of the day and noticing if the children are outside! I've recently done this and it's told me a lot about the outdoor experiences the children were receiving at our local nursery.
Finally, the setting will also have policies for you to read through etc. Regarding how they deal with illness, dress code, health and safety, child protection etc. But for me, this is my list of what I look for when I visit an Early Years setting.
Best of luck, I know it's tough but remember, it's all about your child!