by Jeffrey Israely
Dennis Driscoll has been spending much of his spare time on the weekends building a wooden playground and sandbox in his backyard that would probably qualify him for "Dad of the Year." The only problem is that the Driscoll's two children have long since outgrown the world of sand buckets and firefighters' poles. But their mom, Barbara, knows 12 Palo Alto youngsters who will put her husband's playground to good use.
Barbara Driscoll and her neighbor and partner, Christine Williams, run "My Big Backyard," which provides child care in their own homes and yards on Kipling Street. They are part of a growing number of day care providers who offer working parents a smaller, more intimate setting for their young children.
Presently, there are some 50 home-based child care programs in Palo Alto, according to the city child care coordinator, Ilene Hertz.
David DiGiusto wanted his son Maximo to receive more personal care than he was getting at a large center. "I liked the idea of having him in a home environment instead of inside four painted walls and on a worn carpet all day," he said.
Dru Denmark also moved her 5-year-old son, Andrew, into family day care after several years in a large center.
"I wanted a more intimate setting," Denmark said. "Andrew needed less crowd stimulation and more individual attention."
Denmark attributes much of her son's maturity over the past year to his new day care environment. "It's helped him learn to make his own choices, take responsibility for his choices and articulate his needs," said Denmark. "He's not afraid to be an individual, because he doesn't have anxiety about fitting into a group."
A growing number of parents throughout the country are joining the Denmarks and DiGiustos in choosing home-based care for their children. The Children's Foundation, a national child advocacy group, estimates that nearly 25 percent more American families are choosing family day care today. MORE THAN WHAT?
Driscoll and Williams are part of a new local organization focused on connecting and educating Palo Alto's home-based child care providers.
"We want to draw people together and support each other," said Williams about the goals of the Family Child Care Association of Palo Alto. "It's important to bring more of a sense of community and professionalism to the field."
Family day care providers, according to Williams, "were feeling isolated, and we needed a way to share our experiences and knowledge."
In addition, Driscoll foresees the association serving as a resource and referral network for parents interested in family day care in Palo Alto.
"We want to alert the community to all the different options that family care provides," said Driscoll.
The association is still in its formative stages; Driscoll and Williams are trying to contact all the city's home-based child care providers.
Driscoll said costs among programs, both home- and center-based, vary. Larger day care centers can offer savings by serving more families at one site, while family providers usually benefit from the low overhead necessary for operating their business from their own homes.
Driscoll emphasized that they were not in competition with center care, but simply offered an alternative. "Each site is unique," said Driscoll, whose program only accepts 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds.
Samina Faheem, who has been a home-based provider in Palo Alto for eight years, cares for preschool children of all ages at "Teddyland."
"We have a family-oriented program," said Faheem, who welcomes siblings into her program. "There is often too much pressure to be with peers. This can create age barriers for some children."
Faheem, who moved to this country from Pakistan 15 years ago, said she also stresses cultural diversity with the children in her program. She said the youngsters are always asking her and her assistant to use the different languages they know.
Parents and providers in family day care do share some common ideas about the kind of care young children need. Central to their philosophy is an emphasis on allowing the children to set the pace of the program, rather than focusing on provider-initiated activities. Providers stressed the importance of this approach in developing the children's social, emotional and intellectual skills.
Parents also said they appreciate the sense of community that seems to develop around family day care settings. "We get to know all the children and their parents," said Denmark. "Everyone gets invited to all the birthday parties."
Five-year-old Andrew will be heading off for kindergarten next year, and returning to a large, noisy setting. Denmark knows this may be a difficult transition for her son.
"But," she said, "it will be much easier, because I think he is now more ready, emotionally, to handle these kinds of changes."
Family Child Care Association of Palo Alto
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