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Choosing child care: 20 tips to get it right

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It’s time to return to work. You've made the decision: formal child care.

For many parents it can be a tough decision and in making the call, there is often a significant side effect for parents - guilt.

The guilt can occur for a variety of reasons including fear we are damaging our children's attachment and trust, possibly creating abandonment issues, or setting our children up for repeated exposure to stress that could lead to health consequences later in life. Not to mention some parents find themselves dealing with disapproval (real or perceived) from their own parents or parents-in-law.

The flipside is that many families are watching their enthusiastic, curious and independent children happily enter early learning centres every day for hours of messy sensory play, imagination games, story-telling, physical activity, creative arts, design and construction with teams of patient staff.

Susan Edwards, Professor of Education in the Learning Sciences Institute of Australia at Australian Catholic University, says a parent's perspective on child care and early learning is usually ideologically based. That means it's about values and deep-seated beliefs.

"It comes down to personal perspectives," she maintains. 

Australian parents agree.

Discussing the topic on social media, parents’ comments ran the full gamut of personal, cultural, generational, spiritual and educational viewpoints.

Parents cite everything from socialisation to health; cost to behaviour:

‘They're only kids for a short time.’

‘I had worked hard to build my career and I didn't want to throw it away.’

‘I'm their mother and I don't want them brought up by someone else.’

‘I need to retain my own identity.’

They have all been said before. They are all valid personal reasons. But in the end, the reasons you choose to use formal childcare – or not – are your own. And the opinions of others don't matter.

And as for that guilt? The best way to handle it is to be informed and be confident you have made the best possible decision for your family.

There are a few key considerations for parents in making that decision.

The first is the value of learning through play.

"The relationships children form day to day are vital," Associate Professor Susan Krieg says.

Krieg, who is Early Childhood Program Coordinator, at Flinders University says one of the core needs of any child is the continuity of relationships with people who can stimulate learning and provide a challenging and supportive environment in which the children can be challenged, learn and grow.

"The environment needs to allow the child to be able to explore, and create and experience."

One of the core needs of any child is the continuity of relationships with people who can stimulate learning and provide a challenging and supportive environment in which the children can be challenged, learn and grow.
Associate Professor Susan Krieg

That's where play comes in.

"Open-ended play is important … children get to experience imagination; and that imagination is a chance to draw on the resources of their world,” says Professor Edwards.

She says a balance between open-ended, modelled (imitation) play and purposely-framed play with a focus on outcomes and knowledge building is important in overall development.

Another important issue for parents is cost. Expense is often a deciding factor in making the call about whether child care is an option. 

One mum said, "I weighed up the options and we were even thinking I would go back part time and that way we had a balance between the socialisation and early learning of child care – and some of my own independence – as well as allowing me to have time as a "mum". It just didn't stack up. I was basically paying for child care and that was it.”

While others believed the value still outweighed the cost: “Most of my part-time wage was eaten up in fees but the programs and resources at the centre and the friends our son was making meant it was an investment for us.”

Affordability has a major impact on the decisions parents make and of course it's a big deal for centres the country over.

Associate Professor Krieg points to poor policy and a failure on the part of some State Governments to adequately shore up funding for early learning.

"If the early learning centre cannot guarantee employment for staff year on year, it is not helpful," she says.

"Nor is it helpful in planning programs or assuring children's access to preschool education."

In considering centres, parents should also carefully weigh up centre policies and facilities. 

How they handle behaviours, the environment and setting of a centre, the interaction and relationship between educators and children, the adherence to routine, alignment with personal philosophies, and the willingness of teachers and educators to undertake special needs training are all key considerations.

Additionally, the cost of centre fees and what discounts and waiting list measures are in place for siblings, the provision or otherwise of meals and play-based learning pedagogy can be other factors that may weigh into the decision-making process.

Below is an early learning centre checklist of questions to ensure you get the best from your call or centre visit.

20 tips to help you choose the right centre 

  1. Where is the centre based and is it close enough to home / work to enable close and simple access if necessary?
  2. Does it fit with the style of parenting and our philosophies of early learning?
  3. Is it a good fit with our values?
  4. What is the centre's approach to play-based learning?
  5. How many children per carer?
  6. Are your carers/educators qualified and completing ongoing professional development in the care and early learning of children with special needs?
  7. How does the centre manage behaviours?
  8. Does the centre encourage diversity?
  9. Do I like the centre's environment and surrounds?
  10. Do I feel safe?
  11. What cues am I reading from my child when s/he is introduced to the centre and carers?
  12. Am I being listened to and heard as a parent?
  13. Are my questions being answered?
  14. Do I need to pack a lunch or is food provided?
  15. How will I be communicated with and informed if issues arise?
  16. What is the centre's approach to bullying?
  17. What provision is there to help settle children from other states or from overseas?
  18. What interaction does the centre have with the broader community?
  19. What primary schools does the centre link to?
  20. What can I do and where do I, as a parent, fit in?

Ultimately, if you don’t feel comfortable, then it’s a pretty easy decision. However, your mind will rest easier if you can enter an early learning centre and feel confident that your child will be safe, getting good quality care and important early learning opportunities.