Angela Mahoney's preschool-age daughter has been clamoring lately for something other than cookies and cereal during trips to the supermarket. She's noticed the in-store child-care center and wants to play there.
Mahoney, whose girls are 3 and 1, is wary: "I can't imagine dropping them off somewhere with strangers," she said via e-mail from her home in Salem, Ore., "though I'd like to how tempting to shop in peace!"
She's uncomfortable, she says, with the thought of leaving her children at a center chosen not for its merits but because it happens to be located inside her grocery store.
Supervised play areas charging little or no fee have become commonplace at gyms, supermarkets, chains like Ikea and even casinos across the country. But with many drop-in care centers exempt from licensing (27 U.S. states currently exempt some or all of these facilities, according to the National Association of Child Care Professionals), little data is available on their growth.
That absence of state oversight, and the recent news that a 3-year-old boy was allegedly assaulted at a drop-in care center in a Minnesota casino, may have parents wondering about using these brightly colored playrooms.
Some parents, though, depend on them. After touring the facility and interviewing the staff, Amanda Kirksey of Rochester Hills, Mich., now uses the child care at her gym four or five days each week for two hours per day.
"They have a pretty intense security system, a separate infant room, toddler room and several 'bigger kid' rooms to separate the children," says Kirksey, whose daughter is 3 and son is 2. "They house a huge climbing maze, mini-basketball court, computer learning center, as well as normal toys," and maintain a good staff-to-child ratio, she says.
Facilities and quality of care vary widely. For parents considering using a drop-in care center or play area, here are some questions to consider:
Look for written guidelines on how issues like safety, communication and discipline are handled, says Barbara Roth, a consultant for children's programs at the YMCA of the USA.
"Ask who has designed this program, who has made the decisions about safety and equipment, and what knowledge do they have?" Roth said. Also, "visual access is important. Is there a window I can peek in, a door I can open unannounced?"
At Giant Eagle grocery stores, the "Eagle's Nest" playrooms are designed with rows of windows facing into the store. And the children are visible throughout the play area.
Is a sink or hand sanitizer available, and what are the policies on hand washing, toy cleaning and using the bathroom or diapers?
What training do the caregivers have? "Is it that they just came in and wanted to work at the gym, and there was no place available for them except at the child-care center?" asked Sherry Workman, CEO of the child-care professionals association.
Also, do they report to someone with child-care knowledge or to a store manager with no child-care background?
Many parents are concerned about the ratio of caregivers to kids. Ikea doesn't exceed a 12-1 ratio and limits the crowd to 60, says U.S. spokeswoman Mona Astra Liss.
Dick Roberts, spokesman for Giant Eagle, says the store's policy is a bit more flexible: "It varies by stores because they can be different sizes or maybe they're staffed differently. Twenty is kind of the max they'd like to have."
Workman says it's always best to have at least two staffers on duty: "If something happens to my child, and that person is the only one in the room, then it's my child's word against that person. And that's not good for either one of them."
Are various ages mixed together, and how do they spend their time? Like Kirksey's gym, YMCA care centers offer space for kids to exercise. Ikea has a ball pit, shows DVDs and offers "quiet activities, books and crayons and things they can color," Liss said.
Roth says it's important to ask how they handle children who miss their parents: "Are they ignored, are they held?"
Are you asked to show ID and to sign your child in and out as part of a well-planned security system?
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Most centers at stores and gyms require you to remain on the premises. Giant Eagle offers walkie-talkies at some locations or uses the store's intercom to contact parents if there is a problem. They also ask parents to return if their child needs to use the bathroom.
Kirksey's gym expects parents to return for diaper changes. "If they need you, they will page you on the intercom," she said. "If your children are having a bad day, you can request a pager."
Mahoney is considering asking these sorts of questions of the care center at her supermarket. But she'll only allow her daughters to play there if the answers impress her.
Her daughters, she says, are "the biggest thing I've got."