Childcare is a scary thing, the first time you have to send your kid to one. Nobody wants to let go of their child and give them to complete strangers for... all day every day of the week.
My name is David, and I used to work at a Center for Learning. The ages ranged from infant to pre-kindergarten. I took care of 1-year-olds in my class, but I was regularly transplanted to the other age groups. I want to help you find the best teachers and the best daycare with a few tips of the trade.
The walk-through tour is the ONLY chance most parents really get to make a judgement call about if that daycare is a trustworthy place, and you can't breeze through it. That daycare is ready for you. They schedule and practice to make sure that the best moments are the ones you see. It's all a facade.
Here are a few tests you can try during your walk-through tour to see if the center holds up:
1. Ask the teachers how long they've worked there. Ask all of them--not just one or two.
Consistency is an important part of child happiness while they're at daycare. If teachers are constantly quitting because of poor work conditions, how do you think the conditions are for your child? I worked at this one center for 9 months, and the conditions were so incredibly bad that I had about 9 different co-teachers hired-and-quit in my classroom alone during my (rather short) time there. If you totaled that number of hired-and-quit throughout the entire Center, it would have been an enormous number. My manager kept having to hire nearly anyone to work there that he could (I was shocked, as I wasn't asked any questions at my interview! They just hired me!). Let me tell you, rapidly changing teachers was a brutal frustration for the kids; 1-year-olds having to meet new parental figures every week or two. It stresses already stressed out kids.
2. See if you can get a moment to privately talk to the teachers without the manager breathing down their necks. If anyone really sees your kid for more than just money, it will be the teachers. However, teachers won't be honest or real with you in front of the manager signing their checks. Tell the teacher that you aren't looking for the corporate line, and that you've been wanting for someone to tell them realistic answers. See what their background is. Ask the teachers if the snacks and meals on the menu actually translate to what is served (at our center, we often had vegetables written on the menu, but were served crackers!). Ask them how often they go "out of ratio" (which means how many kids-to-teachers are in the room).
3. Ask how things change every month. Is there a monthly theme or do they move furniture around? How often do the kids get new toys? How often is new art hung on the walls, new pictures put up, does the menu change, etc. Even 1-year-olds get bored. What does the center do to keep things interesting?
4. Feel the surfaces in the room. Are the tables really clean? Or are they just "wiped" minimally to look clean. Feel the surface with your hand. If it is bumpy, that means that food has solidified to that table (even if it is wiped to look clean, it's not).
5. Pick up the toys. Compare how many toys look new and how many old. Look for choking hazards and make sure everything is age-appropriate.
6. Don't just talk to the teachers in your age-range. Really get to know every other teacher in that center, because they will all most likely step into the classroom with your kid. Your teacher takes 10 minute breaks a few times a day. Your teacher has a lunch hour. You better believe your teacher will get sick and use their vacation time. Teachers often go to teach other mini-classes like 30 minute Spanish, music, or art lessons. Also, managers get bonuses if they can send teachers home early. So, who steps into your classroom during those times? Other teachers from other rooms. Also, if you continue with a center for more than a year, your kid might be transferred into a new room with older kids. My point is that you need to trust an entire center, rather than just the one or two teachers in your specific room. The manager is a smiling face, trying to sell you. The teachers don't get bonuses for tricking you--trust them first.
7. Look for dead birds on the playground. No shitting you. Cleaning the playground is expensive, and the managers won't have it done if they are the greedy kind. Look for feathers, dead birds, rotting leaves, pools of muddy water, fungi, and mold around the playground. Look under the equipment (your kid will!). Look behind the playhouse. Look inside it. Look where they place bikes, rocking horses, and slides. Are they next to concrete walls where your kid will get bloodied up? Ask where they keep outdoor first-aid or vomit-cleanup kits. Check to see if they're up-to-date.
Bonus tip: Don't bring your kid to the walk-through, get a babysitter or something. Having your kid there with you will distract you from being able to notice small details. Ask for a separate time to bring your kid in and see how they interact within the classroom, but keep the first walk-through for just you! Remember, there are already kids there for you to observe.
Bonus tip 2: Don't go during mealtimes or naps. This is the time when things are the most laid back, and you should just see the worst of it if possible. Go before 11am or after 3pm. 11-3 is the bad time to go.