Access to quality child care that is both affordable and convenient is a concern for working parents and their employers. In our region, two-thirds of the children ages birth to 5 have all parents working outside the home. Working parents depend on child care providers to act as "second families." From this perspective, child care is an essential service that nurtures and supports young children as well as the local economy.
In addition to providing an appropriate environment, parents look to child care providers to help prepare their children for success in school and life. For a young child, this means filling their days with rich, meaningful experiences that build the skills they will need to thrive in the years ahead. Providing high quality early learning experiences requires specialized knowledge of child development as well as continued professional development. In these respects, child care is like other essential professional services upon which our communities depend.
The words we use to describe these services are changing to reflect new insight into growth and development during early childhood. "Day care" and "child care" are being replaced with phrases that emphasize the early years as learning years. "Early learning center" and "child development center" more accurately describe the many settings where young children grow and learn: in homes; in private centers; and in school-based programs. The shift to "early learning and care providers" reflects the breadth and depth of knowledge and experience that is essential to providing quality care.
The word "quality" has also taken on new significance in the context of early learning and care. Quality is the keystone in every early learning setting; without quality, no matter how well-intentioned, the program fails. Studies show that poor quality care, regardless of setting, harms children by delaying the development of critical social, emotional, physical and learning skills.
One measure of the overall quality of child development programs is to assess children's readiness for kindergarten. Results from Kindergarten Roundups held at area elementary schools during the last two years show that only about half our 5-year-olds were considered "ready for kindergarten" based on a nationally-recognized assessment. Improving quality will help ensure that all children are prepared for success.
The Michigan Department of Education Office of Great Start is taking the lead in quality improvement across all early learning settings. The Tiered Quality Rating Improvement Scale, launched in October 2011, is designed to help parents and providers identify and implement best practices that ensure quality for all children.
However, scales and assessments are not enough. Quality is a commitment we make to ourselves, to our children, and to our communities, to continually seek out the best ideas, to ask for support when we need it and to support each other in our ongoing quest for quality.
Quality is both measurable and intangible. In our work with children, especially young children, we must make a commitment to quality improvement as a way of being. Our children deserve our best.
About the author: Mary Manner is with the Great Start Traverse Bay/Manistee Collaborative of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce
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