Day Care Is Much More Than Babysitting

Mom and Dad cannot always be with their children, but still want the very best.

Posted Nov 18, 2016

Moms and dads have to work. They cannot always be with their children. And, even though the children are in day care, the parents still want the very best for their children. What is quality day care? To address this question, I pulled together theoretical models combined with college teaching and parenting experience.

Children's needs change as they grow. According to Piaget (Phillips, 1969), an infant is in the sensori-motor stage of development and needs tactile and auditory stimulation. Preschoolers are in the stage of concrete operations and need hands-on experiences like exposure to new experiences and vocabulary.  As children grow into the cognitive stage of formal operations, they are ready for more abstract experiences. Every day care program should have a mission in planning for children—they should consider the age and developmental level of the children. One principle to keep in mind is that the activities are developmentally appropriate for the child. You do not want to frustrate a 5 year old with an overly complicated Lego project or bore a 10-year-old boy coloring a pumpkin.

Many theories are useful in guiding the development and planning of a day care program. Among them are Maslow’s needs hierarchy (1943), Piaget’s model of cognitive development, Erkison’s theories of psycho-social development (Berger, 2011). Maslow is a good place to start because his needs hierarchy is familiar, intuitive and useful. At the bottom of the hierarchy are physiological and safety needs. Applied to day care, the first thing a parent wants to know is that their child is safe, fed, housed and cared for. Safety first. After physiological and safety needs are met, Maslow focuses on belonging and self-esteem needs. In terms of belonging, day care is an ideal place to make friends. Children can look forward to a warm greeting and a place to relax and spend time with loving friends and counselors.

In terms of self-esteem, middle childhood (8 to 10 years old) is an ideal time to build competency. Children of this age are in Erikson’s stage of “industry versus inferiority.” They like learning and mastering new things, and time outside school is perfect for this. When I was a kid, we had Girl Scouts. I learned a simple things, like how to set a table, and this helped me feel confident. Summer programs are ideal opportunities to learn a sport like basketball or swimming. Mastering any physical, musical, or artistic skill will build self-esteem and confidence.

Field trips provide an opportunity for stimulation, growth, and new experiences. Two additional principles from Piaget that apply here are accommodation and assimilation. When a child sees something new, she accommodates it or creates a new mental schema. A familiar object is assimilated into an existing schema. Here is an example. When my son was a toddler we took him to Yosemite. He saw a deer for the first time and shouted and pointed wildly saying, “Big Woof-Woof.” His schema for four-legged, furry animals was dog, and a deer was a big dog to him. Field trips and outings give children new experiences. They give them the opportunity to build new mental schemas and assimilate new experiences into existing ones.

Field trips are tangible experiences that help children make sense of school. On field trips, they learn new vocabulary, store up mental images, and apply abstract concepts. Younger children are in Piaget’s stage of concrete operations. Hands-on field trips are developmentally appropriate. Any child who has picked up and held a sea star at an aquarium, will never forget that experience. By petting a sheep at the zoo, a child learns what wool feels like.

Young children develop vocabulary from outings, even the simplest one. When I was a kindergarten teacher, the kids and I loved getting out of the school and walking around the block. We would point to and name simple objects (e.g. rocks, trees, grass) in Spanish and English. Vocabulary is an essential building block for reading skills, writing, and standardized testing. Field trips reinforce school success.

Older children approaching Piaget’s stage of formal operations may be interested in more cerebral trips like museums. Again, this helps them apply what they have learned in school (Piaget- assimilation). Our local school had a very good art program. The children learned the names of artists, something about their genre and materials, a little history, and created their own imitation. When we went to the MOMA in New York, our sons immediately recognized Van Gogh’s Starry Nights and other famous artists. School gave the kids the abstract knowledge but the field trip gave them the real life experience.

My own personal favorite field trips are nature based. Museums foster cognitive development but outdoor plays adds physical development. Children can run, climb, explore, stretch, move, and breathe. For city kids, nothing is more special than finding a pine cone, chasing a squirrel, or skimming a rock on a lake.

Nature Play, an award-winning educational film produced in Denmark, features the most endangered species in the world today: our children. The film interviews parents and teachers in the U.S. and Denmark while comparing educational programs. In Denmark, nature play is a crucial part of the curriculum. Children spend at least an hour a day outside exploring, climbing, and running. They learn respect for nature, curiosity, and a love of the environment. They get wet, cold, and even take risks (imagine that?). The Danish believe nature play makes their children stronger and more self-reliant.

In addition to stimulating cognitive and physical development, day care and field trips offer an opportunity to improve social development. Kids usually sit with a friend on the bus, they may share a snack, and watch out for their “buddy” on the excursion. Even teasing and bickering teach horizontal social skills that cannot be learned from an authority or a screen. In her book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle emphasizes the importance of time away from screens for kids. In one study cited by Turkle (2015) and conducted by Uhls,, children who spent five days without devices improved their ability to read facial expression. And, reading facial expression is related to empathy. Perhaps, children who spend more time with real children, and away from screens, can even become more empathic.

In sum, when looking for a quality day program, safety comes first. Children need to be protected, sheltered and fed. Then, Kid’s Club programs can provide opportunities to master new skills and go on stimulating field trips. Quality day care fosters cognitive, physical, and social development. Day care is more than baby-sitting, much more.


Berger, K. (2011). The Developing Person: Through Childhood and Adolescence. New York: Worth.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review. Vol 50(4), Jul 1943, 370-396.

Phillips, J. L. (1969). The Origins of Intellect: Piaget’s Theory. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.