Giving Thought: Supporting families’ child care choices

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Aspen Community Foundation, Lauder event, Aug. 13, 2018.
Steve Mundinger

Much of the local focus in the early-childhood education sector has been on expanding high-quality licensed child care for children between birth and 5. However, for most working families, licensed care doesn’t always meet their needs. And, the reality is, finding care for their children can feel more like piecing together a mosaic.

Families often rely on a mix of formal, licensed child care and some type of informal “family, friends or neighbor” care, known in the field as FFN. Family, friends and neighbor caregivers are essential for working families, filling the gaps that licensed child care is unable to fill.

A 2013 report from the Colorado Children’s Campaign explains the prevalence of FFN care this way: “We know that Colorado is home to approximately 411,000 children under age 6, and 251,000 of these children live in families in which all available parents work. Colorado’s licensed child care centers and family child care homes have capacity for only 108,900 children — or about 43 percent of the total population with working parents. Many of the remaining 57 percent are surely in need of regular non-parental child care.”

There are several reasons why families turn to FFN care. The lack of licensed, formal child care space, especially for infants and toddlers, is a well-documented burden for families. If space is available, at $65 to $75 per day, most working families can only afford to pay for a few days. Many families work long hours or through the weekend, schedules that formal child care programs are unable to accommodate. And a smaller, home environment with a family member or trusted friend is often a more comforting option.

The FFN landscape of the Aspen-to-Parachute region is varied. In some communities, you might have stay-at-home moms acting as caregivers for their child and others. In other communities, these caregivers might be trained educators taking time off with their own child or retired folks wanting to earn some extra money and help their neighbors.

The vast majority of brain development occurs in the first few years of life, so early childhood educators and FFN caregivers have a vital role to play in ensuring children’s future success. From exercises involving simple motor skills to encouraging creative and imaginative play to reading aloud, a knowledgeable caregiver can help young children acquire many basic abilities that they’ll need for success in school and beyond. If a grandmother or trusted neighbor is a family’s best option for child care, then it makes sense to equip that grandmother or neighbor with as many tools as possible.

For starters, that means making sure there is a safe environment for small children. Caregivers need an evacuation plan in case of fire or emergency, accurate contact information for all parents, medical background information for any children with medical issues and CPR/first-aid training.

It also includes providing training in the stages of early-childhood development, so they can organize structured, age-appropriate activities and steer children socially and cognitively toward kindergarten. It also means encouraging caregivers to take the children outside the home for fresh air and play, and to involve the children in preparation of nutritious, affordable snacks.

We know that working families will continue to rely on FFN care for at least part of the time. In the face of this reality and to ensure that as many of our region’s young children as possible have quality care, ACF is supporting nonprofit organizations such as Valley Settlement and Early Childhood Network to work with FFN providers throughout the region to sharpen their skills.

Supporting the capacity of these caregivers to provide high-quality, enriching environments will ensure that children thrive, no matter where they are cared for.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.