The first thing we recommend you look for will surprise you, since we suggest that you not look at all, but close your eyes and open your noses, breathe deep, and if you smell that nasty orange cover up scent that is designed to mask all kinds of mold and mildew and every stench imaginable, you should leave right then. We have had numerous children over the years who came to our center needing a nebulizer and within two months no longer needed one. Was it magic, or was it because they have mold and mildew allergies and no longer are being exposed to these allergens.
Next, still don't open you eyes: Open your ears. Listen to how the staff are talking to the children, or are they just talking to each other and ignoring the children. How are the children playing among themselves. The staff may put on a show for a prospective customer, but the children certainly won't and how they are allowed to play and interact together is how they will when you are there. This does not mean that you may not see a child crying or two children disagreeing. This happens even in the best of Centers, just like it happens in the best of homes. Listen to the overall group and get a feel for their interactions overall. With years of experience, I don't even have to consciously listen. I can be at my computer in my office with door closed and hear something in the other room and, bing, my mind automatically focuses on something I don't like going on between two children. In a well run Center where the key staff are knowledgeable, they also key in automatically and put a stop to the normal negative interactions that regularly crop up, redirecting the children involved and confirming in their minds that they are not free to engage in negative behavior because their are ears always listening to what they are saying and doing. Again, I am not say that a good Center eliminates all negative interaction, but a good Center greatly diminishes these negative interactions between children which are normal, but should not be allowed to flourish. By listening properly and getting involved early, staff can redirect rather than punish under most circumstances, so the exchange is perceived by the children involved as being overall more pleasant than the path they were taking (as in the staff being the referee rather than the judge and executioner). This confirms in the children the right way to deal with issues. It doesn't mean they will always do the right thing, but it helps in minimizing negative interactions among children.
Now you can open your eyes and take in the organization of the rooms, artwork posted, and how neat and orderly everything is kept. Observe how the children move from activity to activity and if everything is flowing in an orderly and organized way. It may not appear to you at first like organization because you won't be familiar with the schedules and procedures of the room, but look a the children and if they understand how things work and know where to go and what to do, than there is order. When we were first opened I had a very disorganized degreed Teacher that would say: "Friends. Friends. What are we to be doing now?" and she would repeat this many, many times until I just couldn't help myself. I went to her and asked: "What are our friends supposed to be doing now?", and as I suspected, she didn't know. I asked: "If you don't know what our friends are to be doing now, how are our friends supposed to know what our friends are to be doing now?". I can promise you that in a well run classroom, the Teacher and the children know what they are to be doing at every interval throughout the day. Good teachers communicate what they are going to do in positive ways to the children and although there are new things to learn and do each day, the daily structure such as times to start circle time, crafts / educational activities, outside play time, lunch, nap time, afternoon snack, etc. are all set at the same times each day. The structure is maintained because children derive comfort from knowing what comes next and their bodies also become used to the schedule. They are naturally calm during circle time, become hungry at morning snack time and lunch, become restless and animated at the time to go out for outside play. In a disorganized classroom, half the children are running around the room during circle time because their bodies don't know it is time to relax and sit and enjoy circle time.
Next we look at facilities, but remember, facilities come second to what is listed above. I would recommend a loving, organized, clean and educationally based program with poor facilities over one that has beautiful facilities but the teachers just stand around and talk and let the children fend for themselves. If the Center you are looking at has the above, it is now time to take a look at facilities.
After cleanliness and organization, the things I look for in a child care facility is are the rooms large and open, are their many windows that let in a good deal of natural light (turn of the lights in the rooms your child will be in and see what the natural light is), are things torn up or in good condition, is there plenty to play with, where is the craft room and how many craft and educational supplies and books do they have (a center that penny pinches will do it here), what are the areas of egress from each room in case of fire (there should be at least three means of egress, but many old buildings only have two and are also more susceptible to fire because they are old), are the heating and air conditioning relatively new and large units (you won't appreciate a call that your center is closed for the next few days because of no heat), if the center has a well, who is their testing company and who is their Department of Environmental Protection representative, where is their Licensing and Inspection Certificate and their DPW Certificate that enables them to operate as a Child Care Center. Where are the fire extinguishers and look to see that each has an up to date tag. Where are the emergency lighting and smoke detectors located and push the emergency lighting button on one of the devices and see if the lights come on (if they don't, you can be assured that the smoke detection system is similarly faulty). How are the children transported. If by car, ask to see the policy. In most cases, child care centers use personal vehicles to transport children to and from school under personal insurance and if something happens the insurance provider can claim that they were not covering commercial transport and it could fall completely on the child care provider, which is bad for the provider, but also bad for you because if they do not have the money take care of your child's injuries and go under, those bills will fall completely on you. Good centers have specific vehicles for transporting children and the policies list the Child Care Center as the insured. Very good centers use school buses instead of cars to transport the children. If the Center you are looking at is using a school bus, look at the windshield next to the normal inspection sticker and you should see a second sticker from the State Police. Every school bus is required to be inspected by the State Police each year and every school bus properly inspected will have a State Police sticker next to the normal inspection sticker. Check the insurance policy for the facility for the same reasons you would check for insurance on the facilities vehicles. Is the parking adequate.
A simple way to see if a Center is well staffed is to drive by mid-day and see how many cars are in the parking lot(s). At mid-day, you may have a parent dropping off or picking up, but most of the cars will be staff cars.
Does the Center you are trying to see have locked doors. When you knock, do they take a while before they let you in. Is the reason for the doors being security or is it that the Center wants to keep people out until they get everyone back in their rooms. If a Center won't let you in to see the Center for any reason, never return. This is a very bad sign and probably means they have something to hide: most likely, poor staffing. You will see this in Centers that require you to make an appointment because they want to make sure they have proper staffing when you come.