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Looking around a day care center and seeing the children engaged in games of all sorts, it is easy to understand why some parents assume that playing is all children do there.

But, in fact, playing is only part of the program.

"A day care center helps to raise and rear the child, often spending more time with the child than the parent does," says Jennifer Vrooman, office manager at Holy Innocents Day Care Center in Buffalo.

Learning, play time, supervision, healthy meals. That's just a few of the things parents worry about when choosing the right day care center for their young children.

But how does a busy parent, encumbered with the juggling act of work and parenting, navigate the labyrinth of different providers to find the one that is the best match for them, their child, and their bank account?

It isn't easy, and it involves some research.

"When people think about child care, there's a lot of misconception and myth out there," says Karen A. Liebler, chief executive officer of Children's Kastle Early Learning Center, 3966 Walden Ave., Lancaster.

"Not all child care centers, nursery schools or . . . (universal prekindergarten) programs . . . are the same, and the difference is the license."

In New York State, child care organizations are regulated by the Office of Children and Family Services, which is a resource for parents who are seeking help with child care, and people who want to start or are running a child care program.

"Child care centers are licensed by the State of New York, and that's huge," said Liebler. "We do a criminal investigation. Licensed child care centers do finger printing (of their employees). We are required to have 30 hours of training per staff member a year."

Making certain that the child care provider is licensed, Liebler said, can relieve a lot of parental concerns.

"I would recommend to parents that they choose first a licensed center, because with that license, they get the security of knowing that their child is in the best (and) safest environment.

"The second thing I would ask parents is, "What is it that you really want for your child?'," Liebler adds.

Elise Dockery agrees. "Parents are looking for some kind of organized plan. There are different expectations that parents have. Some parents are like, "As long as you feed the child, that's fine with me, and as long as they're clean when I pick them up,' " Dockery says.

"But some parents would like their children to have more of an advantage when they get to school. They don't want them to start out behind the other children and that type of thing. So, when their children come home and they say, "I know what an oval is,' then (the parent) can see that their child can already learn at this age, and they're absorbing things, and they're already on their way."

Dockery, the program director at the James A. Dockery Community Center in Buffalo, also designs the curriculum for the community center's Hickory Dickory Dockery Day Care Center.

Parents need to make sure the provider can keep the child occupied - both physically and mentally, Dockery says. "To bring a child in and plop them in front of a video is not my idea of the ultimate day care."

Which may be a good reason for parents to ask if the day care center has earned an accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Six of the seven child care centers run locally by EduKids are accredited, explains Kate Dust, education director, which means the facilities are recognized for a safe and nurturing environment designed to promote the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of the young child, Dust says.

EduKids' seventh facility is in the process of becoming accredited, and that involves, according to Dust, working with administrators, staff, families and community members.

Granted, educating the child may be important, but training the parents is equally important, adds Vrooman, of Holy Innocents.

"Some parents forget that child care is a team effort," she explains. Parents and day care providers need to sit down and discuss the parents' expectations of the workers, but also the workers' expectations of the parents.

Behavioral reinforcement, she adds, is vitally important. It does workers no good to try and get children to eat with silverware, for example, if they still eat with their fingers at home. Likewise, if parents carry a toddler-age child everywhere, while the child walks and runs while at day care, the lack of consistency can be confusing to the child.

Parents also need to remember that "kids are kids." Holy Innocents instructor Glenda Smith notes that parents often forget that "children will fall, will get hurt, will get cuts and scratches in day care, just like at home."

They're kids, she says, so they will play and play hard, and their bodies will bear the brunt of that.

If children are protected from absolutely everything, then they will grow to be afraid of absolutely everything, she adds.

After checking the license of a child care facility, the next recommended step is to look "at the credentials of teachers to see what their experience is," says Christine Whitlock, director of Nardin Academy's Montessori Oshei Campus, 700 West Ferry St.

"Another thing I think parents should definitely look for is how high, and how quick, is the turnover? What's the longevity of the staff?

"If a program has a very high turnover rate, that's an indication that something might be wrong," Whitlock adds.

"The staff ratio is also very important to parents because they want to know that we're not going to leave their child in a room full of (many) other children. And although there are state guidelines, sometimes people have too many children and (do not follow) the ratio," Dockery says.

Parents also should check on-site security, the cleanliness of the facility, availability of materials, classroom organization, and, of course, cost.

"You definitely need to shop," said Liebler. "People will spend thousands of dollars to go shop for colleges, spend weekends away looking, but they spend an hour making a child care decision, and their child is going to spend (their formative years) there."

And, finally, a parent should remember the most vital question: Why send their child to a child care facility?

Liebler summed it up: "One of the best compliments in all the years I've been doing this was a parent who said to me, "My child is here because I want the best for my child, and you can offer my child things that I am not equipped to give them.' And I thought "Wow, that's it, that parent sees that.' That was the best compliment."

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