Investing in Our Future: The Changing Face of Child Care

Focus on learning and development, parent engagement, and technology are key trends in the changing face of child care and preschool programs

The child care system in the U.S. and abroad is going through significant changes based on experts’ realizations that the first five years of life are a crucial stage for a child’s physical, intellectual, emotional and social development. Core developmental learning happens during this critical time when children require high quality, personalized care in environments where they can learn, play and develop in a safe, monitored environment.

As a result, many parents now have higher expectations of child care services, but many institutions are lagging behind and failing to advance in ways that would benefit the children in their care and their parents at home. In this article we explain why there is a push for change and look at ways in which child care and early education institutions can progress in ways that will improve outcomes for children.

A safe, monitored environment is essential, but early learning and development is the future of child care

Even twenty years ago, many parents were primarily concerned with their child’s safety when choosing child care options, assuming that the most important education and early stage development would take place at home. Now, however, child care is shifting from childminding to early childhood education, a place where children can learn, grow and develop. It’s not just parents who feel that this is important. In 2006 the Center on the Developing Child (CODC) was established at Harvard University to research trends in early childhood education trends and transform the policy and practice landscape.

The Harvard CODC argue that early life experiences and the environments in which children develop in their earliest years can have lasting impacts on later success in school and life. For example a recent report by the University of Montreal found that “Children from disadvantaged families who remain at home have double risks – they evolve in a home environment that is less stimulating than that of non-disadvantaged children and they are not exposed to the learning experience that most children receive by going to child care”.

“We begin to see differences in the size of a child’s vocabulary as early as 18-24 months,” said Jack P Shonkoff, a professor at the CODC. “These differences are not genetically hardwired. They’re based in the differences in the kind of language environment the child grows up in.” In the first few years of life, 700 new neural connections are created each second, so placing children in a safe, constructive and mentally stimulating environment is crucial to maximize their potential for learning in the rest of their lifetimes.

There are many strategies for maximizing learning potential, but the one I see as having the most immediate impact is the investment in early childhood educators. The investment in staff has been shown to pay off dramatically. Providing the best environment possible for children’s development now equates to a strong investment in our future. A December 2014 U.S. government report, “The economics of early childhood development”, suggests that expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits valuing roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent.

Parental involvement and engagement in child care is now seen as a central component of a child’s overall development

Parent involvement is central to children’s learning and development and today’s parents want to be more involved in their child’s early years education as they themselves become more educated on the importance of early stage development. A study by the National Institute for Early Education Research found that, compared to families of young children in 1993, parents in 2007 indicated greater awareness of several “essential” competencies for children when they enter primary education.

Researchers at the University of Oxford found that children whose parents participated in a program geared towards supporting families of children ages 0-5, “made significantly greater progress in their learning than children whose parents did not participate.” These strides were found in children ages 3-5, and included progress in vocabulary, language comprehension, understanding of books and print and number concepts. In addition, these children also exhibited higher self-esteem compared to children of non-participating parents.

A study published in the Journal of Instructional Psychology reported that improving parental involvement in the classroom can also improve schools in general. The authors describe how everyone within the school community can benefit when parents and teachers work as partners. In Ontario, Canada, the government is even providing economic incentives to child care programs for increased parent involvement in class and in extra-curricular activities.

Technology is increasingly required to meet the growing need for educational content and parent involvement in child care

Child care is very different now than it was for previous generations. The rising costs of child care in the U.S. is putting pressure on American families, who are being forced to put aside anywhere from 15% to 65% of their wages to provide suitable care.

But just because parents aren’t able to be with their children 24 hours a day shouldn’t mean that they need to fall out of touch about their development. Nowadays we can do pretty much anything on our smartphones and computers, from banking to booking a holiday, so it seems bizarre that technology is not being used to keep parents informed about their own children.

Technology has lowered barriers to information exchange and communication, and as such can enable parent involvement to improve educational outcomes for children in child care programs. However, most daycares are lagging behind – a recent study found that 59% of parents expressed that they would like more information about their child’s activities and learning while in a child care program or school.

Leading directors, educators and center staff recognize the importance of investing in digital documentation and other technology that make the most efficient use of their time in the classroom. Yet, another recent study shows that, despite the fact that 59% of early childhood educators have access to computers for classes, 35% of educators report never using a computer with young children in their programs indicating some disconnect between knowledge of the importance of technology and the actual implementation of it in the classroom.

It is worth noting that many parents have traditionally been cautious about relying too heavily on technology in the classroom, believing that traditional teaching materials provoke more imaginative responses from children, an argument experts have denied. There are many research-based technologies that are making positive impacts on children’s learning and development. For example, Ooka Island’s game based reading program teaches foundational reading skills, and Hatch’s All-in-One computer for pre-schoolers provides individualized learning experiences for each child to keep them challenged while monitoring children’s progress along the way.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) argues that “when used intentionally and appropriately, technology is an effective tool to support learning and development.” The children of today grow up totally surrounded by technology, and it is sure to play a huge part in their future education and work lives. Experts state that using technology in the classroom “provides opportunities for children to discover, make choices and to experience the impact of their decisions.” The tools can also be used to allow children to act as mentors “self-teaching” their peers how to use the technology, acting as a collaborative tool which children can enjoy together.

The face of child care as we used to know it is changing. Parents are becoming more aware of the importance of their child’s development in those crucial early years, and as a result have higher expectations for child care providers and want to be more involved in what is happening at child care. While the child care industry is progressing, there is still a lot of room for advancement. Child care programs should take advantage of existing technologies that improve the classroom experience for teachers, parents and children alike. More attention should also be given to investing in new technologies for early childhood education to ensure that our children’s generation and those that follow continue to be equipped for success from the very earliest years of life.

Ron Spreeuwenberg

Ron is the Co-Founder & CEO of HiMama, where he leads all aspects of a social purpose business that helps early childhood educators improve learning outcomes for children.