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Available Childcare

Childcare primarily occurs in three locations: care in the child's home by relatives or nonrelatives; care in a home outside the child's home by relatives or nonrelatives; and center-based care. There are significant variations within and between these categories, including the time that care is available, the cost and quality of care, the professional status of the caregiver, and the relationship between the caregiver and the family. The age of the child, marital status, race and national origin, and family income are also major influences on the care arrangements used by parents.

Some employed mothers do not use supplemental childcare because they work at home, they are able to alternate childcare with their spouses, older siblings care for younger children, or the children care for themselves. Relatives (often grandparents) may provide a great deal of care for children, ranging from occasional to full-time, regular care while the parents are employed. Care may occur in the parental home, especially if relatives live with the family or in the relative's home. Relatives are especially important caregivers for infants and toddlers, and as a supplement to school attendance for school-aged children, both times when other caregivers are difficult to find. The relationship between relatives and children may be especially strong as relatives have a past and anticipated future relationship and commitment to the family. However, the use of relatives as caregivers may occur because of limited options for childcare due to low income and poverty. Interest in care by relatives has increased in the United States and Canada since the passage of national welfare reforms requiring mothers of young children to enter the workplace. This has led to concerns about the quality of care provided by relatives and the use of public subsidies for caregivers who may work from a sense of duty rather than choice.

Individuals unrelated to the family also provide care in the child's home. Caregivers (nannies) may live in the family home and perform other household duties, whereas baby-sitters (often teenagers) provide occasional care for only a few hours. Sitters have been a common form of child-care in Canada and the United States when other alternatives were limited. Some families jointly hire and share the services of an in-home caregiver or trade childcare on a regular basis.

Children also receive significant amounts of care in other homes. In the United States, 21 percent of the care of children age five years and under was provided in another home by a nonrelative (U.S. Bureau of Census 2000). Family day care (also called home childcare, day mothers, or child minding) involves the care of a small number of children, usually six or fewer, in a private home. Care is provided for a fee unless the caregiver is a relative. In the United States and Canada, family day care is primarily regulated by states or provinces through licensing or registration, although many homes are unregulated.

The small number of children in day-care homes produces a desirable adult-child ratio, although the quality and the stability of the care depend on the characteristics of the caregiver. Although most providers have experience with young children, few may have formal training in child development. Providers may find home day care a positive way to combine care of their own children with the ability to earn income, but the presence of young nonfamily children in the home is stressful and the turnover rate of providers is high (Atkinson 1992; Nelson 1991).

The use of center-based childcare (also described as a nursery school, kindergarten, crèche, community-based care, or child development center) has generally increased over time. These programs are often staffed with professionally trained directors and teachers, and enrollment may range from fifteen to more than a hundred children, often organized by age of children. Some programs, initially designed for middle- and upper-class homes, provide a part-day program of cognitive enrichment and socialization. Other programs provide full-day care and have evolved from child welfare programs created to care for children from poor families whose mothers were employed outside the home. Today the differences between these two types of programs have lessened as many centers provide full-day care as well as educational programs. Although childcare centers have typically provided services for children from two and five years of age, there is a growing demand for center-based programs for infants and toddlers.

Some centers operate as for-profit businesses, whereas other centers are not-for-profit and may be sponsored by community organizations and social agencies. Cooperative programs have paid professional head teachers but use parent volunteers for the rest of the teaching staff. A small but growing number of employers support childcare by providing on-site care, information and referral services, flexible financial benefits, and/or flexible work schedules for parents.

Older children also need care when school hours do not mesh with parental hours of employment. The term latchkey child reflects concern for children who spend significant amounts of time without adult supervision. The descriptions of self-care or out of school care are now used as more positive terms. Parents may supervise children from work by checking periodically in person or by telephone. Other parents use programs that have been developed to provide care before and after school, usually at the school itself, offering breakfast and snacks as well as supervision until parents can pick up their children. Programs vary in whether the emphasis is placed on academic activities such as homework or on free time and recreational programs. Children may spend a significant amount of time outside of school in activities such as lessons and clubs regardless of whether their parents are employed.

Many programs have been developed to provide services for children with special needs. Atrisk programs provide comprehensive services for children considered to have high risk of failure in school. The goal of these programs is to give young children a boost that will help them succeed in school and life. Activities are designed for cognitive stimulation, socialization, and emotional support and also provide comprehensive services for parents and health and nutrition programs for children. These programs may be in cooperation with public schools, with programs available to provide parents with support services. Head Start is the best-known program in the United States, beginning in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty and the Great Society. A more recent component called Early Head Start serves children from birth to age three and has shown promising results (Gilliam and Ziglar 2000). Children with atypical development may receive care in separate facilities or, more commonly, are included in programs for typically developing children.

Although many educational philosophies exist, programs are often child-centered and based on hands-on learning experiences that encourage children to learn about the world through play and experimentation with materials and ideas. Another common goal is to help children learn how to function within a group and to successfully work with peers and adults. European educators have had an important influence on developing curriculum for young children. Johann Pestalozzi, a Swiss educator, and Friedrich Froebel, a German founder of the kindergarten movement, developed the basic ideas of a child-centered curriculum. Other important innovators included Maria Montessori, an Italian physician, and John Dewey, an American philosopher. Important theorists of the late twentieth century include Jean Piaget, a Swiss epistemologist, Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, and the community-based approach found in Reggio Emilia, an area in northern Italy (Prochner and Howes 2000). Many of these original ideas changed over time as they were adapted in different countries.

The curriculum generally includes periods of free-choice play, planned activities, rest periods, and meals and snacks. Governmental agencies often set basic standards for the centers' programs, buildings and equipment, and staff certification. Some centers and caregivers meet even higher standards through accreditation by professional organizations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (Breddecamp and Copple 1997; Swiniarski, Breitborde, and Murphy 1999).

The professional role of the teacher varies between countries. A summary of European Union countries identified four broad typologies: early childhood pedagogues serving children from birth to compulsory school age; preschool specialists serving children in the two to three years preceding school entry; teachers involved with children from age three to eleven-and-a-half; and social pedagogues involved in various work fields including early childhood education (Oberhuemer 2000). Because of cultural differences, it is difficult to compare the effectiveness of programs in countries that have different needs, resources, and philosophies (Feeney 1992; Katz 2000). Projects such as the Effectiveness Initiative sponsored by the Bernard van Leer Foundation are attempts to cross-culturally compare what works in early childhood development programs and the barriers to success. (Early Childhood Matters 2000)

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