Center-based care has many names — child care center, preschool, nursery school or learning center. Center-based care also may have different sponsors, including churches, schools, colleges, universities, social service agencies, Head Start, independent owners and chains, and employers.

Regardless of what type of center-based care you choose, there are some basic things to consider. Centers should be licensed and inspected regularly for health, safety, cleanliness, staffing and program content. (Some programs are exempt from state licensing.) Just because a center is licensed, do not assume it is regularly inspected. Check to see how often the center had announced and unannounced inspections in the past year and what was checked.

Keep in mind that state licensing regulations set the lowest legal limit for staying in business. High-quality care requires more than complying with regulations. To find out about what is covered by the regulations in your area, contact your city, county or state department of social services. State licensing regulations also can be reviewed at the local licensing agency. Most are listed at the National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care Web site at:

Accreditation is another way help ensure a standard of care. Accreditation is different from licensing. High-quality centers should be accredited or in the process of obtaining accreditation. Accreditation means that an outside observer has determined that the facility generally meets the criteria for high-quality child care.

Several independent groups of early childhood care and education professionals offer accreditation for centers. These include the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Child Care Association (NCCA). If a seemingly good center is not accredited by either of these organizations, ask why. Encourage the staff to consider seeking accreditation.

Parents should be welcome to make unannounced visits to the center to see their child, and they should be notified quickly if their child needs medical attention. Policies should be written and should explain how the center's staff promotes positive, effective discipline and responds to sick children. There should be a daily schedule that is used and posted for review by parents. Toys and activities should be suited to the children's ages and abilities. The facility should follow safety guidelines. Caregivers and center directors should be trained in early childhood education. Look for centers that have at least two caregivers per group and one group per room, a window or glass door for supervisors to view activities, and a plan for ongoing staff training.

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