Day care centers are offering more than just babysitting services. Just ask Laarni Camerino, mother of three young boys. When she drops off her kids at Palcare in Burlingame, Calif., she knows they get a good education, take part in fun activities such as painting, and eat a nutritious hot lunch.
All the perks equally excite the 36-year-old mom. Shortly after she brags about her 6-year-old son's ability to read at a second grade level, the civil engineer gushes about the time she saves every night, not having to prepare lunch and snacks, and to clean Tupperware from the day's meals.
Palcare's flexible and extended hours also give Camerino the option to take a night off with her husband, to adjust work hours according to her family's needs, and to have extra assurance that her kids are safe. "Because parents are always in and out of there, I think it keeps the place on their toes," she tells WebMD.
Camerino is one of a growing number of moms discovering the benefits of today's child care. When parents bring their kids to The Little Leprechaun Academy in Mason, Ohio, they can also drop off their dry cleaning, get free Starbucks coffee, and, when they get to the office, check the center's live classroom camera via the Internet.
At a handful of Primrose Schools, located mostly in the southeastern and southwestern U.S., take-out meals, portrait-taking, and fingerprinting of kids for safety files are part of the routine.
And there's more. Some day care centers across the country run errands for families, give haircuts and manicures, provide immunizations and medical tests, have doctor, dentist, and veterinary referral services, offer parenting classes, organize community volunteer events, and host social gatherings for parents.
Something useful, nothing new
It may seem surprising, but additional services are not new in the child care world. Early education programs have traditionally supported families, says Susan Aronson, MD, FAAP, a former member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Board of Directors. She points to the federally-funded Head Start program as an example of an organization that has had a strong commitment to the family's overall needs.
Alan Simpson, spokesperson for the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), agrees. "Many early childhood educators recognize that the children in their program need a lot more than just early learning services," he tells WebMD. "Educators want to work with families to make sure children are getting all the things they need to foster their development."
What's new is apparently the resources used to assist families. Aronson singles out web cameras, while Simpson points to the errands that some day care centers run for parents.
The NAEYC does not keep track of child care programs that offer additional services, but Simpson says there has recently been much discussion at early childhood education conferences about novel ways to help families.
Lee Scott, a representative of the Primrose Schools, says the extra services have arisen out of demand, and produce a win-win situation for parents, kids, and centers. "We find our families are just rushing constantly, and if we can ease some of that, it creates a good feeling about the school, and of course, it creates customer loyalty," she tells WebMD.
Finding Quality Child Care
Ellen Palumbo's 7-year-old son attended Primrose in Cary, N.C., when he was younger, and now her 3-year-old daughter is a student. She is grateful for the free take-out dinners that the school gives out from time to time, but she mostly appreciates the fun activities and lessons that her children have learned. Her son learned to volunteer for community events, and, so far, her daughter has learned to not open doors to strangers.
Early childhood education experts hope that more parents will have Palumbo's mindset of thinking of children first in choosing a day care center. There is worry that some people may become distracted by the glitz of services catered to attract busy moms and dads.
"Parents usually choose cost and convenience rather than quality," says Aronson. "The difference between good quality and what is mostly available in this country -- which is mediocre quality -- is about 10%."
One of the main problems, explains Aronson, is that young parents are expected to make decisions about early education for their children without much experience on the subject. She says early care should be seen as part of the education continuum that involves the elementary, secondary, and college levels, and not separate from them.
Aronson also recommends that parents look in the American Academy of Pediatrics web site for advice on how to choose a good early care program.