The first type of care is a licensed group day care center. These centers can be part of a national or regional chain or an independent for profit or nonprofit center, such as are offered by some religious communities. Centers may be a free-standing and independent enterprise or part of a larger organization, such as an on-site care facility sponsored by an employer.
There are many advantages to a day care center. First, as they often provide care for children from infant to preschool ages, the child may be able to stay at the same care location until he or she is ready to enter school. Though children are usually grouped by age and kept in different rooms, centers typically train teachers to minimize children's transition issues when advancing from room to room.
Another advantage is the mix of activities and experiences that a larger center can often provide. Many centers have teachers who specialize in art or music or other development activities for children at each age level. The rooms will have age appropriate toys and activities, and there will usually be a structured curriculum and schedule followed each day that helps the child learn and grow in a consistent setting. In addition, children from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds may be present, which can lead a child to become aware of and appreciate diversity at a young age.
Day care centers generally participate in a state sponsored meal program and parents can then be assured that their child is receiving appropriate nutrition for his/her age group. Centers will usually have a separate room or space in the room designated for sleep and will structure nap time, at least for toddlers and preschoolers, in a way that leads the children to develop healthy sleeping habits.
A final advantage of day care centers is their usual practice of providing multiple staff members for each room. This is a benefit for several reasons. First, if one teacher is out ill for the day the center will have a replacement schedule set up to take care of these occurrences. This redundancy allows parents to work uninterrupted, without having to make alternative care arrangements whenever a center teacher is absent. Though centers do offer more predictable child care, there are generally a number of holidays, and up to two other weeks during the year that the center will be closed for teacher training or other reasons. Therefore, backup care may still be needed, even when using a center.
A second benefit to centers' multiple staff involves a sort of peace of mind with regard to child safety. Because there are usually several teachers present when children are at the center and because staff are generally put through background and credential checks before being hired and are trained on appropriate behavior with children through both their education and ongoing staff training, there is generally a reduced risk that children under a center's care might be abused or harmed, physically, emotionally, or sexually.
There are also several disadvantages of day care centers that must be weighed by parents. First, while the large number of children can be helpful to a child’s development of social skills such as sharing and playing together, the large group environment can also be harmful if a child is not receiving enough one-on-one time with a teacher. Teachers are often responsible for many children in a room and may not be able to provide individualized attention to those who need it.
Another potential disadvantage is that the structure and formal curriculum of a day care center can be rigid, and children who require special accommodations to regular routines may not be properly accommodated. For example, many centers will have a set nap time for toddlers, while parental experience will often show that a child does not always sleep at the same time everyday and may need much more or less sleep than others their age for many reasons.
As shown in the financial considerations section of this document, the cost of care at a day care center can often run two or more times the cost of a family care center and even more than an arrangement with a friend, relative, or neighbor. Generally, day care center costs tend to be comparable to or less than nanny or au pair costs. The high cost of a day care center is a variable that must be weighed when making care decisions.
The large number of children and staff at a day care center increases the likelihood of children (and therefore, parents) becoming exposed to germs and illnesses. While centers will have strict sick child policies and will try to reduce exposure, it is impossible to be 100% safe from the germs that quickly spread when a group of children are together all day. For example, children play with the same toys and eat and sleep in close quarters. One child who is starting to get a cold but is not sick enough to be sent home can pick up a toy and play with it and then place it back in the toy box for the next child to pick up. Alternatively, during snack time, one child can share part of a cracker that he/she has already bitten into with the child sitting next to him/her. The child can then become ill and not be allowed back in the center for 24-48 hours or without a doctor’s note, depending on the policy. This means that the parent must then find an alternate caregiver for those days or miss work and provide the care themselves with little advanced warning to his/her team and employer. If a child is especially susceptible to the many bugs that go around, this can quickly become a work performance issue for the parent.
Finally, there is generally much less flexibility in terms of scheduling, including pick-up and drop-off times. Many centers have strict late policies that may cost $10-20 for every 15 minutes that a parent is late.