To many of us working parents, the term “daycare” (Kindertagesstätte, Kita or Krippe in the German-speaking part of Switzerland) simply means taking responsibility for the safety and happiness of our children while we are working. In a developmental daycare, however, the backgrounds and training of the childcare workers lead to care with a difference. Good leadership can also mean a care setting makes a greater impact on a child.
In a specialist developmental setting, teams are more likely to articulate what their priorities are. This becomes their “concept,” as it is called in Zurich, also known as their “childcare philosophy,” and it can include guiding principles to encourage particular values (like Montessori, Steiner or Reggio Emilia) or staff organisation to immerse children in particular languages.
Since founding Children First in Zurich in 2006, I have become aware that many international families appreciate a developmental day care setting where early years education is a priority. An international day care that also offers preschool is one way to combine caring for children with teaching pre-reading, pre-writing and early maths skills. At kindergarten stage (from age three and a half or four to age six) the extra care (Hort in German) is usually after the core teaching day. The style of teaching is different from when kids are school-aged; it has to include caring, too. Combining teaching with kindness and emotional sensitivity requires teachers and carers with experience of each other’s disciplines. In combined care and early years education, a full-day timetable might be adapted to cover the whole (adult working) day. Parents who choose an English preschool or a Montessori kindergarten appreciate that their children do not have to wait to learn the basics until they attend primary school. Brain development is so phenomenal in the early years that it seems a pity to waste the opportunity if it arises!
Combining care and education is familiar to U.K. and U.S. families, because nursery schools and preschools have existed there since the eighteenth century when women started working, in the era of industrialisation. It has since become normal in many parts of Europe, though not in Switzerland, to offer playful learning of basic skills for the very young in a happy and relaxed environment that does not feel like a large, traditional school but does get them in the habit of learning, either individually or in a group. In my experience, playing is inseparable from learning in children’s formative years because they process their experiences through play and language. But playful learning at ages two or three plus is not always a recipe for success. Research on what makes an effective preschool shows the importance of small groups to the quality of learning of the children, as indicated by later achievement in primary school.
International parents are therefore mostly aware that it is good to provide a mixture of free play and structured activities with an experienced adult pre-school teacher. In most of Europe, a middle way can be found between child-initiated play and formal teaching. This adult does not “talk from the front” or lead activities for hours on end; they guide the children’s play, building in time for children to practice new skills and use their creativity and training to make special equipment and toys available to children under kindergarten age that will extend their thinking, maximise their social learning and develop their language skills. This in turn leads to better behaviour in groups due to an improved ability to negotiate with their peers, rather than acting out.
There is a time and a place for free play, when preschool-aged children can initiate social activities themselves, and get absorbed in their “work” (Montessorians call all activities “work,” whether designed to be playful or not). This develops their thinking and concentration. Children need a chance to process the many intense and social experiences they have during the hours they spend away from home. This does not just happen automatically. As a former play therapist in London, I believe that the presence of a talented and trained adult helps to shape how and what they play. Children are always learning something, but how we the adults respond moulds their perceptions of themselves and others.
Longitudinal research also shows that the experience and the level of the qualifications of day care workers, nursery nurses, and preschool teachers makes a real difference to children’s educational achievements in the future, especially when there is a disadvantage that needs compensating, whether it be social (such as moving house a lot) or a lack of cognitive stimulation. Over the years children spend attending either preschool or childcare, graduate-level staff in an organised and professional environment tend to create a different emphasis, which is why in the UK a degree-level teacher has to be linked with state sector settings for four-year-olds.
In a professional care environment, parents can expect information about what care really means, day in, day out. This can be about practical care or show the less concrete values of the setting. Let’s separate out the different aspects of care:
1. Organising the child’s routine so they eat and sleep well, and have the energy to play and learn in-between for longer and longer periods of time. Some children are butterflies, others stay and play longer, but the gradual increase in absorption in their activities is facilitated by getting the practical things right. Are they physically comfortable, including being changed promptly or wearing the right clothes for the day? Can they focus on adults they care about as well as other children?
2. Being sensitive to a child’s wellbeing is an emotional and less visible form of caring but it has tangible results. Holding, snuggling and enjoying closeness with their carer shows they are securely attached and from this secure base can go and explore their immediate surroundings. So your child will be “loved” by other adults in a care environment, who should be able to assess their attachments carefully, ensuring every child in the group feels the warmth of good human relationships. Social babies often feel secure once they are used to the activity and sounds or talking of other children in their group.
3. Engaging with a child’s thinking is caring on a rational and intellectual level. If we understand how a child thinks, we will provide adequate stimulation so they do not dwell on small things and can learn to overcome minor issues. Their interest in others and the world will be a resource for them for years during early childhood before they go to school. Even babies can be interested in the world around them and learning from their environment.
As your baby grows into a toddler and your toddler into a child, you will hear more about tangible relationships and learning activities in addition to the information you get about their daily triumphs and challenges. Their thinking and learning comes increasingly to the fore, and you will gradually hear less about their physical care.
In Zurich, the newly emerging Swiss childcare sector has taken lessons from experience in other parts of Europe such as the UK and Italy to organise their childcare centres. This trend should continue, improving the chances of getting developmental day care into the Swiss sector, even if some local opposition to early years education persists here.