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It’s not your Grandma’s day care anymore!

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image This photo was taken Aug. 15 at Kids R Kids in the Kings Lake subdivision in Gibsonton, one of many child care facilities that now prepare children as young as age two for school through play. Penny Fletcher Photo

Wow! How things have changed over the years.

BY PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY —  When I was asked if I could write a news story on how child care has changed in the past 30 years the first thing I thought was, “I can’t believe I have actually been raising children continuously since 1966.”

Yes, that’s true. I had my second child in 1966 and he went into childcare at a week old because I had to go right back to work. It may be hard to believe now, but back then we not only didn’t get maternity leave, we could be fired if we got pregnant or stayed out of work too long while pregnant, or after a baby was born.

I learned the other day that nobody wants to use the word “day care” any more. Not the licensed home child care facilities, or the preschools. The word now is either “child care” or “preschool.”

So much for lingo. Other things have changed even more.

“Back in the day” I took my kids to a babysitter at 5 a.m. so she could get them ready for either day care or school, depending on their age. Then there was the after-school drop off from the school bus at a different person’s house. I must say, it was a tremendous hassle, as I often had to work double shifts and arrange for pickups and transfers by telephone.

Remember, if you didn’t have dimes (and later quarters) on you, you couldn’t use a telephone then either. Unless you were fortunate enough to work in a place that had a desk phone and allowed employees to use it, which in the late ’60s, I wasn’t.

The best day cares back then consisted of a playground and consistent enough caregivers that your kids knew them by name. Maybe they were read to. Maybe they colored or played with blocks or other simple toys. Sometimes, they were guided into group activities but mostly they were told “Okay, time to go outside,” while the mom in charge took her coffee break.

I remember the first actual preschool “my first batch of children” went to. While we were living in what was then called Sandman Mobile Home Park on Highway 70 in Oneco, an actual facility was opened that had brightly colored rooms with Disney figures painted on the walls and a playground with a fence around it. I was thrilled; as for the three kids I then had, they still had to go to the sitter before school because the day care facility was only open from 7 to 5 and I worked longer hours than that, but they had the distinction of being the first children registered in that brand new facility and the bus from Oneco Elementary School took them right to the door.

Wow! How things have changed over the years.

When I remarried a Ruskin native in 1980 after life as a single mom in Bradenton for many years, I inherited stepchildren quite a bit younger than mine. Things had changed by then, and it was noticeable. There were parks programs in Ruskin, and the kids had opportunities there I had not encountered before. Ruskin Elementary School was walking distance from the Ruskin Recreation Center, and my stepson took part in baseball both there and at Vance Vogel Park in Gibsonton.

My problem with (mid-day) after school transportation disappeared when we used the county parks after-school programs, as until the late ’90s, buses took the children directly from elementary and middle schools to parks and other programs.

We still didn’t worry much about security in the ’80s or early ’90s. As the children got older, they stayed home alone, even though we lived on the river and I knew the boys especially would often swim or take the Jon boats out.

Heck, they were boys, and they were both like Huck Finn.

I didn’t deal with child care much for about five years until I inherited custody of a 7-month old granddaughter (at 54 years old) in 1999. Suddenly I saw that everything around me had changed.

“You can’t put a baby on the floor of your car in a laundry basket Mom!” My grown son, this child’s uncle, told me. “You can get a ticket for that. Or maybe even worse. Children need to use car seats, and seatbelts.”

Okay, so now my grown kids were teaching me.

My granddaughter entered child care at 7 months old at the Maranatha Church of God child care center, although that was not our church. I soon found they had planned activities, even for the tiniest babies. They were rocked. They were read to. And the older ones played supervised games outside.

As she grew, we tried several different kinds of child care. She went to three private child care centers, two of which I had to enter using a security code to get in the door.

Registration and attendance for the day were done by computer at the front desk by the parent. I could see we had come a long way from letting the kids out of the car in front of the building and driving off to work.

Oh, but there were other changes too. By age two, my granddaughter recognized words in her favorite books. By age three, she had begun to read.

Why, she was actually learning something before entering school!  

Later we utilized the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation program both after school and during the summer.

I think these programs are worth every tax dollar spent on them. Not a minute goes by when children are left bored or unattended. Games, activities, crafts, computer learning labs and field trips left the children I met there tired and happy.

Since coming to this area in 1980 I have done many news stories about the long waiting lists for many private child care facilities and (recently) the lack of transportation for working parents from school to after-school care that does not have its own bus. School bus transportation to anywhere but home was eliminated in budget cuts right around the year 2000.

I have watched the changes with my own eyes, yet the explanations of why they have come about have come from local experts, like area recreation specialist Dave Ramirez who supervises parks programs, and Kemly Green, spokesperson for the Parks Department.

Every year, despite budget cuts and staff reduction, often accompanying even stricter rules as to ratio of kids to adults, and/or more training required, they manage to keep their charges happy and safe.

Meanwhile, the private facilities are in a type of friendly competition with more than enough children to go around. There’s usually a waiting list so some even refer to each other. One thing they all seem to recognize is the need to pick up children at the schools and see that they arrive safely.

County ordinances now say that children cannot enter a child care or preschool facility until they are 6 weeks old. But then, nowadays, they have maternity leave so mothers can spend those few crucial weeks at home with their babies.

The top age for private child care facilities-whether for after-school care or full time during vacations, is 12, although the parks department takes kids from 5 to 15.

Some of the private child care and preschools cook hot lunches; others cater them in and still others make them bring a bag lunch. It all depends on the facility as there is no state or county rule governing this.

Most provide after-school snacks.

Prices, that in the 1960s ranged from $15 to $25 a week per child (always with a break if you had more than one) now run from $50 to around $100 per child for after-school programs, most of which include pick-up from school, to around $150 per week full time during summer and school vacations.  

Many of these facts were made from telephone calls to local child care facilities but most were provided by Carrie Elwell — not wearing her hat as co-owner of the Kids R Kids franchise in the Kings Lake subdivision with her husband Kevin — but as a member of the Hillsborough County Child Care Advisory Board, a volunteer board that listens to child care owners, staff and parents and works to better the industry as a whole. 

I met with Kevin and Carrie Aug. 18 and learned things that I could never have predicted 30-plus years ago when I was wide-eyed at the facility our mobile home park had just installed.

I had gone to Kids R Kids to talk about and photograph its expansion but found out much more about advancements in the industry in general while I was there after learning Carrie was a county Child Care board member.

I learned that safety and security, background checks, including fingerprinting, and 45 hours of training are required for anyone working in the industry now ­— no longer are just babysitters allowed — and that facilities like Kids R Kids operate like a school, except that children learn through play.

When I arrived, a group of two-to-five-year olds were interacting with a touch screen that allows them to write their own stories, do math, draw, and all sorts of other things.

It was a long way from the blocks I remembered my kids piling up at their day care at that age.

“Children learn something like 3,000 words between the ages of 1 and 2,” Carrie Elwell told me. “They learn to interact with things and people. This is such an impressionable age, we want to be sure they get the most out of it as possible.”

Carrie, who is the mother of two children herself, ages 4 and 6, said one of the original reasons she and Kevin decided to open the business was because they could see the tremendous need for preschool education in today’s world.

“Not just in technology, but in the ability to get along with others from a very early age,” she said.

Both the Florida Department of Children and Families and Hillsborough County check the background of all prospective teachers and aides- anyone who now works with children. “There are three levels of checks, state, federal and local,” Carrie said. “And the initial 45 hours training can be taken at a center in class or online given by DCF before they can start work.”

Carrie and Kevin had not been in this business until five years ago. They had friends open a Kids R Kids franchise in Pasco County and saw the need. “It took us three years to find just the right place and secure this land,” Carrie said.

The local Kids R Kids began with about 15,000 square feet of space and until the recent expansion had 180 children registered. Aug. 18 they held a Grand Opening of a new building that gives them 2,800 more square feet of classroom space and 8,000 more square feet of playground. The added space will increase their approved amount of children to 376.

“We don’t have any TVs. We aren’t babysitters,” she said. “We will have enough staff to keep everyone busy and learning.”

The other child care facilities I have used and/or written about these last 14 years since I again became a “parent” using child care facilities (for the third time) aren’t “babysitters” either.

The people caring for children all over South County, in general, keep their charges busy with games and activities.

“We are aware that we are entrusted with precious cargo,” Carrie said. “Not just their bodies, but their brain.”

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