How to choose a good kindergarten

Creche, kindergarten, nursery, parvulario… call it what you like. An important developmental stage for children, a useful preparation for school, a life saver for parents… nurseries can be great.

My sister in law is a super qualified childcare expert and when I got myself in a bit of a tizzy over which nursery to choose for my son, she reassured me that as long as he was safe, I shouldn’t worry too much. While nurseries can be a great aid, children are much more influenced afterwards during their school years.

I have two kids, Sebastian aged three and Rafa aged one. Having given birth in Switzerland, moved on to Belgium, then to the UK and now on course for Chile, we’ve seen our fair share of nurseries. Sebastian has been to three so far – one average, one bad and one excellent. It is this current excellent nursery that I have to thank for Sebastian’s growth in confidence, happiness and general development.

While I agree with my sister in law that there’s no need to panic, only now do I understand the value of a good nursery. After our experiences, having looked around from country to country and seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly I get what a good nursery can do for the whole family.  Only now do I understand some of the questions I should have asked first time round.

While every child, region and family is different, here are the questions I will be asking when we move. Have I forgotten anything? Please do let me know in the comments below if you have any ideas to add.

How do you ‘prepare’ children for school admissions? I personally value playing and socialising with other children over filling in exercise books, but some nurseries feel under a lot of pressure.

What activities are prepared for the children? While free play is great, there also needs to be someone leading the development with new ideas, games, crafts etc.

What ratio do children play outdoors to indoors? What kind of toys and play equipment are on offer? Socialising and fine motor skill development are both important. It’s good to see a mix, and staff who make the effort to switch from indoors to out wherever possible.

Who changes nappies, how often and where? If one of the classroom teachers is doing the changing then bear in mind that they’ll not be playing with the children. Make sure there are enough staff on board. Ask to see where children are changed. Are changing mats wiped down with disposable cloths and product after each use? Do staff wear disposable aprons and gloves? Do staff use disposable paper towels or the same hand towel? Are changes recorded?

How are the children spread between the different rooms? (i.e. by full year, by six month gaps, or by developmental stages). Our current nursery allocates children according to age, and moves them to the next stage within a small group. This way, my son moved from one room to the next with a few of his friends and did not feel at all disturbed by the move.

Are children’s birthday’s celebrated? What activities are planned for special events, such as public festivals? While this is not a deal breaker for me, it gives a good idea of the extra mile a nursery will go for their children.

Do you schedule a nap time? Some children may only nap if others are encouraged to do so. If all the children are running around playing then your child may not feel inclined to take a nap. If a nap time is scheduled, ask to see the cots or beds. Is this a quiet, dark space or in the open? Look at hygiene and tidiness. Does every child have their own sleeping bag? How often are sheets changed? Are naps scheduled according to the child’s need or according to the nursery’s timetable?

What safety measures are in place? Are there double doors with codes? Do staff ask you to show ID if they do not recognise you? What policy is in place should your child be picked up by another member of your family or a nanny? Does the nursery have a plan in place in case of an emergency, for example a lock down? What safeguards are in place for children’s safety, such as no trap door hinges, slip resistant floors etc. While it is impossible to avoid all accidents, it’s reassuring to find a nursery that takes safety seriously.

To what level are staff qualified? Is there at least one staff member trained in first aid available for every room? Would they be qualified to deal with accidents such as choking, minor cuts etc. Do staff have any special needs training, for example Makaton signing? What languages do they speak?

Is it possible to attend one day to observe? Can this be on any day and at any time? While nurseries will obviously prefer visitors not to attend during busy times such as meals, it’s a good sign if they are happy for you to attend whenever you like, and not just when everything is on show. The poor quality nursery our son once attended included all sorts of games and activities when we visited, but in the weeks that followed when he actually went on a permanent basis there were no such fun things on offer.

What is the ratio of staff to children per room? Needless to say, an overcrowded nursery without sufficient staff to properly supervise is a recipe for disaster. What paperwork or other commitments do the staff have? If they are too busy filling in developmental forms, they may not have enough time to properly care for your child.

What type of toys does the nursery feature? Are these readily accessible for all children?  Creative role play toys trump electronic devices used to distract children. I was disappointed to see my child dumped in front of an iPad when I picked him up from his former nursery. The nursery worker explained she just needed time to tidy up, but hey… I don’t pay for my child to be plonked in front of an iPad. They needed more staff, and less gadgets in my view. iPads, televisions, jumperoos, bumbo seats… they all ring alarm bells when I see them now.

How much does it cost? Sounds like a dumb question; anyone wants the best for their child. Be prepared for hefty bills in the UK and Switzerland however. 50 hours will set you back around an average of £277.84 per week in London, but I have friends who pay £90 per child, per day. While I personally value the group socialization that a nursery provides, some find it makes more financial sense to employ a full time nanny.

Do you open during the school holidays? Some nurseries will close on public and school holidays, leaving you to juggle between other sources of childcare more often than you might have planned.

What is the food like? Is food prepared freshly onsite by its own staff or by an external catering company? What provisions are in place for allergies, special diets (e.g. religious)? How often are children fed and where? Again, look to hygiene policies. How often are menus varied? How nutritionally balanced are the meals provided? Don’t be put off by the use of frozen vegetables – in some cases they can contain more nutrients than ‘fresh’ ingredients. For our dairy intolerant toddler Rafa, our current nursery provides sugar free calcium fortified oat milk, as well as an excellent weekly changing menu of dairy free meals and snacks.

Finally, while all the above questions are a guideline, nothing compares with your gut feeling. If you feel your child will be unsafe, or unhappy and yet you can’t put your finger on why, then perhaps it’s worth taking a look at a couple of alternatives, or asking a few more questions.


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