Choosing an Early Learning Program

Children who have positive, high quality early learning experiences are better prepared for school socially and academically. The following information and tips may be helpful in determining the type of early learning program that is the best fit for your child. Our Early Childhood Resource Directory has a wide variety of listings, but before you dive in, this page is meant to provide you with more detailed information and tips as you select an early learning program. 

For print-friendly versions of this information, view our “Choosing an Early Learning Program” trifold in English or in Spanish.

Details about the Early Childhood Resource Directory

The listings in this directory include some preschools with extended day options. When exploring a school with extended hours, look at its preschool programming, as well as the quality of its child care facility.

Unless noted, all of the child care facilities listed have ongoing enrollment as long as there are openings. Please note that some programs may fill up as early as January or February for the following fall. While most programs start enrolling children in January/February for September, please contact programs directly for questions, enrollment options and to schedule a visit any time of year. Typically, the age eligibility listed is the child’s age as of September 1st of the upcoming school year. Many programs housed in religious institutions will give preference to members. Call for specific information if you are interested in a particular program.

By law, all child care agencies must be open to children with disabilities. However, some facilities may work better for a child with a disability and this should be considered when making your decision. 

Types of Child Care

What’s the difference between a family-based center and a preschool? Is an early childhood center the same as day careChild care is available in many forms and styles. There are different types of early learning programs that all involve care and learning experiences for young children. The amount of structure, type of curriculum, size, program time, and environments vary across different types of programs.

Center-based programs: Center-based programs often consist of a number of classrooms where children are grouped by age. Center-based programs usually have classrooms for preschool children ages 3-5, but may also have infant and toddler classrooms. There are typically many teachers and staff who are overseen by a director. Center-based programs might offer full day and/or part day options and may operate on either a year-round or on a school year schedule. Center-based programs may be privately operated for profit, or they may be operated by nonprofit agencies such as churches, public schools, government agencies, etc. Center-based programs are also sometimes called Child Care Centers, Early Education Centers, Nurseries, or Day Care.

Home-based programs: Home-based programs are located in a home rather than a commercial or school space. Also referred to as “family-based,“ “in-home child care,” or “family child care homes,” a home-based program is often in the home of the early learning and care provider. Frequently, home-based programs are multi-age and can have infants through school age children in the same program. DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) licensing requirements allow for up to eight children in a licensed home-based program, and up to twelve children in a licensed group home. A DCFS license is not required for fewer than four children. 

Preschool Programs: Preschool programs are usually for children between the ages of 3 and 5 years old. They are often open only during the school year, for only part of the day. Many organizations offer preschool programs, including schools, places of worship, nonprofit organizations, and centers. 

Preschool for All (PFA), Pre-Kindergarten Partnership (PKP), and Head Start: Preschool for All is the name of all Illinois state-funded preschool programs. Oak Park’s District 97 calls their state-funded preschool program, based at Longfellow School, the ‘Pre–Kindergarten Partnership,’ or PKP. For this reason, you may hear people refer to these programs as “PFA” or “PKP.” Head Start refers to programs that are federally funded. These government funded early learning programs may have eligibility criteria for enrollment. Learn more about these opportunities by visiting our Access to Preschool page. 

Nanny, Au Pair, Babysitter: Some families may prefer the one-on-one contact that a nanny, au pair, or babysitter can offer in the family’s own home. A nanny may live with your family or in their own home, while an au pair usually lives as an extended family member. In some cases a nanny or au pair might also do light housework in addition to child care. You will want to interview and get references for a caregiver in your family’s home and conduct a criminal background check with the Illinois State Police, and a DCFS Child Abuse and Neglect Tracking System (CANTS) check. There are many social media groups and babysitting lists, and some local colleges and universities have job boards where you can post a notice seeking a caregiver.

Points to Consider When Choosing Quality Child Care

When looking for an early learning program, look for a place where your child is warmly welcomed, where safety and health are priorities, and where learning happens through play. Choose a program where children experience language and develop early literacy skills through books, songs, and meaningful conversations with their caregivers. 

You might have priorities related to your family’s culture and language background that weigh into which type of program you choose. You should also consider what you know about your own child and their individual needs and style of interaction when deciding which type of early learning program will be a good fit.

Here are a few tips that may help you feel confident in your choice of early learning program for your child.

  • Start early. Many programs begin enrollment as early as January for the following year while others have ongoing enrollment. 
  • Schedule visits. Make appointments to visit each program on your list and watch what goes on. Try to picture your child in the program when you visit.
  • Stay in touch. Once your child starts the program, talk to your provider regularly to see how things are going and learn how you can support your child at home. 

Other things to consider:

Licensing/Accreditation: 

  • Is the program DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) licensed if it is required? In order to be licensed, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) requires that child care centers and preschools meet minimum standards of health, safety, and appropriate practices for group care of children. 
  • If licensed, what is the program’s quality rating? The state of Illinois rates all licensed early childhood programs with a quality rating system called ExceleRate Illinois. Gold, silver and bronze ratings all indicate that a center or a preschool exceeds the basic state licensing requirements. The ratings indicate increasing levels of program quality based on the physical environment, staff education and training, and curriculum and activities for the children. 
  • Does the program hold any other certifications or accreditations? Some examples of other types of accreditation include NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and NAFCC (National Association for Family Child Care) accreditation. Standards for these accreditation exceed basic licensing standards and involve a rigorous process to obtain accreditation.
  • If license-exempt, does the program have other indicators or measures of quality, health, and safety? Early learning programs that are part of an existing education system – public, faith-based, or Montessori, are not required to be DCFS licensed, but often have other standards for maintaining quality as part of the system they operate within.

Program Philosophy: 

  • Does the program value learning through play? 
  • Are there educational as well as social and emotional goals that are assessed regularly and communicated to families? 
  • Does the program emphasize guidance rather than discipline and clearly communicate guidance policies?
  • Is there clear and ongoing communication between the program and families in a variety of ways, such as a program website, handbooks, newsletters, conferences, events, etc.?

Environment: 

  • Is the environment welcoming to children and families? 
  • Are there plenty of materials available that allow children to make choices throughout the day and that children can become deeply engaged with? 
  • Is there space indoors and outdoors for large motor play? 
  • Are diverse cultures and abilities visibly included?

Program Staff: 

  • Do staff interact with all children respectfully? 
  • Do they engage children in conversation, singing songs, and reading books?
  • Do staff participate in both required training (such as child abuse prevention and reporting, first aid, CPR) as well as ongoing professional development?
  • Is there low turnover of staff in the program?

Health, Safety, and Nutrition:

  • Are the toys and play equipment safe and age-appropriate?
  • Are spaces clean and equipment and play materials regularly disinfected?
  • Are there clear emergency procedures for accidents, missing children, custody situations, fires, and other disasters?
  • Are there policies for medication and illness?
  • Are children supervised at all times by adults?
  • Are healthy and appetizing snacks and meals served?
  • Are food allergies and dietary restrictions handled safely?
  • Is there flexibility in eating patterns for both individual children (children can leave food on their plate or ask for more) and for family preferences (ethnic or religious restrictions)?

Affording Early Learning Programs

Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP): The Illinois Child Care Assistance Program makes it possible for families who qualify to receive financial assistance in paying for child care. Parents must meet the State of Illinois’ income and family size guidelines. Illinois Action for Children can help you determine if your family is eligible, complete the application, and locate programs that accept CCAP funds.

Tuition Assistance: Some early learning programs offer tuition assistance in the form of scholarships or a sliding scale for tuition. When searching for programs, ask the early learning program director about whether these are available at their program.

Publicly Funded Preschool: Oak Park and River Forest provide free, high-quality preschool experiences that support the development of the whole child to preschool age children whose families meet eligibility criteria such as veteran status, developmental delays, and income level. Three agencies in Oak Park receive grants to provide state-funded Preschool for All programs: ABC Toon Town II Educational Center, Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park River Forest Day Nursery. Email programs@collab4kids.org or call 708-618-6122 ext. 8 to be connected to Coordinated Intake at the Collaboration for Early Childhood to find out more about publicly funded preschool options and eligibility. 

Rating Systems and License Requirements for Preschools and Child Care Centers

The Illinois Early Childhood Rating System: The state of Illinois rates all licensed early childhood programs with a quality rating system called ExceleRate Illinois. Gold, silver and bronze ratings all indicate that a center or a preschool exceeds the basic state licensing requirements. The ratings indicate increasing levels of program quality based on the physical environment, staff education and training, and curriculum and activities for the children. In addition to filtering by accreditation on our Early Childhood Resource Directory, you can search accredited programs across Illinois by zip code on the Illinois Cares for Kids Website.   

Licensing Standards for Child Care Centers and Preschools: In order to be licensed, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) requires that child care centers and preschools meet minimum standards of health, safety, and appropriate practices for group care of children. The summary of DCFS licensing standards for homes and centers can be found on the DCFS website. These standards are also available at the Oak Park Public Library. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has developed voluntary measures of quality that show that a center has met higher standards that go beyond state requirements. You can search for NAEYC accredited programs in your area 

License-Exempt Child Care: Preschools that are part of an existing school system – public, faith-based, or Montessori – as well as government programs, are not required to meet DCFS standards; these centers are noted as “License-exempt” in the Early Childhood Resource Directory. 

Finding and Selecting a Nanny, Babysitter or Au Pair

Some parents may prefer the one-on-one contact that an in-home provider can offer.  

A nanny works on a live-in or live-out basis performing child care and some minimal household duties. Usually unsupervised during the day, the nanny generally has a 40- to 60-hour work week. Check with an accountant or tax professional to learn about taxes you may be required to pay. 

An au pair lives as an extended member of the family and provides up to 45 hours of in-home care per week. Au pairs cannot be left alone overnight with children or alone with an infant under the age of three months; they do not do housework that does not relate to the care of children. The au pair program in the United States [link: https://j1visa.state.gov/programs/au-pair] is closely regulated by the State Department; it is intended to be a cross-cultural exchange program with a child care component.  

There are a number of ways to find nannies and babysitters in our community: 

MomMail is a free local resource that sends out a weekly “Sitters Wanted/Available” email post every Monday to MomMail subscribers. Requests for inclusion should be emailed to OPRFMomMail@gmail.com. (For more information about subscribing to MomMail and to check the deadline for inclusion in the weekly email posts, go to the MomMail website.) 

Social media provides a wealth of networking spaces for Oak Park area parents, sitters, and nannies. Search Facebook for “Oak Park Moms” to connect with an active network of parents in the community.  

University job boards are helpful for parents who need regular babysitting services. They can post their needs on job boards in the student career centers at Concordia and Dominican Universities: 

Concordia Babysitting Job Board
Email: campus.events@cuchicago.edu
Phone: 708-209-3090
at Koehneke Community Center, Concordia University 

Dominican Babysitting Job Board
Email: jpaulus@dom.edu
Phone 708-524-6822
at Dominican University Career Center, Room 216

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