There’s a change underway in New Hampshire daycare. Increasingly childcare centers are opening and family, home-based operations are closing, and some believe the changing demands of the workplace are part of what’s driving the shift.
For parents who work, child care is a big investment. For one infant, the average cost is more than 12 percent of a married couple’s income. Meanwhile, In New Hampshire the number of people working odd hours in the leisure and hospitality industry is on the rise, and the increasing demands on workers’ time has been well documented across the country.
So when folks pay out for childcare, how important are the flexible hours from 6:30 am to 6 pm?
“Vital,” says Troy Smith, who brings his three children to the Seedlings Early Learning Center in Epping, “To find someplace that was open as early as they’re open and stay open as long as we need them to accommodate our schedule.”
“Working parents are busy people,” says Kristin Smith, is a family demographer at UNH’s Carsey Institute, “We’re living in a 24/7 economy and parents are weighing the costs, the accessibility, and the quality of childcare arrangements in their area when they’re making their childcare decisions.”
But the economy is just one factor putting the squeeze on traditional home-based outfits. Parents’ priorities are shifting.
The Vanishing Home-Based Day Care
It’s easy to drive right past Little Visions Child Care without realizing. That’s because it’s in Shelby Laudani’s home, a non-descript ranch in Pembroke. A home-made fabric sign is the only clue that she and one or two employees care for up to seventeen children inside.
“In this setting as opposed to a large setting, we don’t have to separate them by age. So they all have lunch together, family style dining,” she says giving a tour of the kitchen squeezed in between a play room and the nap room. “They do the dishes in the bucket, they’ll clean the tables. Of course we clean them later,” she explains laughing.
Little Visions is a family-group home, one step up from the most basic child care license. She says she’s full up, and has parents of newborns clamoring for spots. Laudani says she often knows about a pregnancy before a couple’s immediate family. “I have ones contemplating pregnancy, already paying for a spot for a year from January,” she explains.
She’s not interested in opening a center, and says the data from the state are puzzling.
She’s gamed out the numbers for what would happen if she scaled up, and thinks she gets a better deal working from home. Loans for a facility, stricter insurance requirements, and rules for how many caregivers to infants make finances for Centers very tight.
But despite those challenges, childcare centers are on the rise.
In 2000 nearly 40 percent of childcare was happening in private, but licensed homes. Today, that number is down to 23 percent.
Making it Easy
Flexible hours are only part of the story says UNH demographer Kristen Smith. Others include the perception that centers better prepare kids for school and provide a higher quality experience.
That sensitivity – fair or not – is real. “The news doesn’t help sometimes,” says Patti Subirana, the owner of Seedlings, which cares for over a hundred kids. “You hear these horrible stories about an in-home daycare and I think it scares a lot of parents.”
This doesn’t mean that home-based daycares are worse than centers. For instance Shelby Laudani got a commendation from Early Learning New Hampshire in 2010, presented by the Governor. “I usually try to stay under the radar, but I do believe we are providing that level of quality service,” she offers modestly.
But parents’ perception still matters. And as more and more research piles up about the importance of the early years in a child’s performance in school and beyond, parents are voting with their feet.
And that might not be a bad thing. “Research shows a positive connection between organized child-care, such as daycare, and school readiness at kindergarten enrollment,” says UNH’s Smith, “So in that sense these changes could be viewed as positive.”
But most parents are likely deciding on the whole package a daycare offers.
The Seedlings Early Learning Center offers breakfast, lunch, snacks, free diapers and extended hours, as well as qualified staff and a “school-like” setting.
“I think the easier you make it on the parents, the more appealing it is for them to pick a center,” sums up Sonia Landry, the program director at Seedlings.
Which may mean the shift to out of homes and into centers isn’t about to stop.