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How to choose a good nursery

Starting to look at nurseries for your little one? We explain how you can find a good nursery school in your area minus the stress!
Returning to work and entrusting your little one in someone else's care for the first time can be a really nerve wracking experience so it's important both for your own peace of mind and your infants development to choose a nursery that you're completely happy with.

As a starting point it's a good idea to ask friends, family and any other parents you know in your local area whether they have heard, or experienced, good or bad things with any of the nurseries near you as word of mouth is a really good starting point from which to begin investigating.

It can take a few tries before you find a nursery that you are happy with so it's important to start looking early especially as some have long waiting lists. Despite this it's important to try not to be swayed by mass appeal, instead do your own research, use your own judgement and find a nursery that fits in with the standard and style of childcare that both you and your baby are happy with.

The essentials

It's important to start with the basics when narrowing down your search for a good nursery regardless of whether you're spoilt for choice or not. The following criteria are absolute essentials and you should check that a nursery complies completely before it wins a place on your list of maybes.
  • Ofsted registration - By law all childcare providers that look after children under the age of 8 must register with Ofsted so this is an important first check. Either ask to see the nursery's registration certificate in person or contact your local Children's Information Service to check.

  • Qualified staff - At the very least 50% of the nursery staff should be qualified with a relevant childcare qualification such as an NVQ childcare level 2. Additionally, all supervisors should hold an NVQ Childcare level 3 and at least one member of staff should hold a current first aid qualification.

  • Good Ofsted report - Just as with schools, Ofsted regularly audit nurseries and publish the results on their website. It's a good idea to read up on those in your area as these reports monitor factors such as health and safety, child welfare and the level of education provided.

  • Staff to child ratios - Generally the more staff and the smaller the group of children in their care the better. However, at a minimum you should look for a nursery that is able to meet the following ratios on all occasions (not including volunteers). For children aged 0-2 there should be a maximum of 3 children per adult, for infants aged 2-3 there should be a maximum of 4 children per adult carer and for children aged 3-5 there should be no more than 8 children in the care of any one adult.

  • Health & safety - It's vital that any nursery you consider provides your child with a clean, safe environment in which to learn, grow and develop; even on basic appearances a nursery should look well looked after and organised. The kitchen, bathrooms and play areas should be regularly cleaned and well maintained and toys and equipment should all be in good condition and there should be no visible hazards to your child's safety at all.

  • Structured curriculum - Any 'good' nursery should have a structured curriculum that allows time for learning as well as play. Ideally, a nursery should dedicate time throughout the week for physical activity (if they have an outside 'run around' space all the better), individual as well as group learning, quiet time and activities that allow infants to develop and express their creativity.

  • Age appropriate learning - A 3 year old is going to require a very different type of care to a younger child so it's important to check whether a nursery is able to dedicate time to age appropriate learning. Find out whether the staff look after different age groups in different rooms or, at the very least, run different activities to cater for the differing needs of different age groups.

  • Security - You should be confident that any nursery you consider is able to provide a completely safe environment for your child. Check that there is no way for your child to either leave the building or for an unauthorised visitor to enter the building without being seen by a member of staff.
The practicalities

Once you've discovered whether a nursery meets the basic 'good nursery' criteria, the next step is to look at the practicalities of sending your child to each. Things to consider include:
  • Cost - Obviously cost is going to be an influencing factor as to which nursery you choose for your child. This will depend largely on whether you opt for a state, community or privately run nursery but while you will want to get your little one the best care possible it's important not to overstretch yourself financially as having a happy parent who isn't stressed and working the whole time to pay for nursery fees will be better for your child's development.

  • Travel - The journey to and from nursery will be an important factor to consider as a long journey will add travel time to your day and reduce the amount time you have to spend playing with your little one; ensure any nursery you consider is within a realistic distance.

  • The menu - It's essential that any nursery you choose is able to provide a healthy, balanced meal plan for your child. A good nursery should include lots of variety in the menu as well as regular snacks and drinks. It's also a good idea to check whether they are able to accommodate any special dietary requirements.

  • The equipment - You should look for a nursery that has a wide selection of books, toys and equipment available for your child to use whatever their age.

  • Nursery policy - All good nurseries will have policies in place and it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with these before making your choice. Check the opening hours, the degree to which they can be flexible with late or early pick ups, whether they are willing to open over bank holidays, which illnesses will require your infant to take a sick day as well as the length of time they will need to take off when they are under the weather. You should also check whether your child will be assigned a key worker to be your first point of contact, responsible for regularly interacting with your child and keeping you up to date with how they are getting on. It's also a good idea to check whether parents are encouraged to get involved for special events or even able to visit during the nursery day.

The environment

As any nursery you entrust with looking after your little one will be their primary carer for at least part of the day it is important that you are happy with the environment your child will be left in as well as their approach to 'parenting'. It's a good idea to find out:
  • What kind of space there is for your child to play in. Will they be able to spend time running around outdoors as well as playing inside?

  • What approach the staff use for important elements of your child's care such as discipline, meal times, sleep, changing (some will require you to use reusable while others prefer disposables), potty training, education and play.

  • Whether other parents are happy with the care their child is receiving.

  • Whether the staff are happy in their jobs. Content, well looked after staff are less likely to leave and more likely to provide your child with a stable, enthusiastic level of care.

  • What extent of one-to-one time your child will receive from nursery staff each day, whether they practice daily reading and if a TV is ever used to entertain the children (the less this is done the better!)
The gut feeling

While it's important to do all the research you can, the best way to get a feel for the level and standard of care any one nursery is able to provide is to visit it yourself. It's a good idea to drop in on a number of occasions at different times of the day both with your child and without. While initially it's probably a good idea to arrange a time to visit so that you can have a proper chat with the nursery staff, there is no harm dropping in unannounced to see how things appear when they aren't expecting a visitor as this will give you a better idea of the day to day running of the nursery.

When you visit check that the staff appear attentive towards, and interested in, the children, that the children themselves seem content and stimulated and that there is plenty of 'evidence' that constructive learning and play is being encouraged. If your child is with you see how he or she reacts to the environment - do they find it comforting or do they appear stressed beyond what you'd usually expect for a new situation?

By carrying out the basic checks, factoring in the day to day practicalities and going on your gut feeling you should be able to find a good nursery that is able to create a happy, interesting environment for your little one. It's a difficult decision but by doing your home work you'll be able to find childcare that both you and your infant are happy with.

Whether you've just started considering alternative childcare or already have your little ones settled in at nursery, why not share your questions and experiences with other members on the AskBaby forums?.

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im a single parent abt to start a full time college course could somone please tell me what benifets im intitled to im working 16 hours just now and get working tax credits and child tax credits but im scared i'll end up with much less money can anyone give me some advise please
by suziesue 5th Jan 2009, 9:30am

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