One of the most stressful things I did as a working mom was to look for childcare for when I went back to work. Then when I became a stay at home mom, I thought that stress was over, but really I don’t think it ever ends? At some point you are going to have to entrust your child in someone else’s care and this is not something to take lightly. Recently, I have had cause to reevaluate my gym child care situation and I realized that I really failed to give much critical review of gym child care the first time around — I was just thrilled that there was one. I thought that it was great that a gym offered affordable childcare and didn’t really dig too deeply — I had only asked if the staff was CPR trained and background checked.
In most states, gym childcare is not regulated at all and some won’t even have their own guidelines. Safety and quality can vary widely and, with small children, bad things can happen in matter of minutes and seconds. In evaluating gym childcare, there are actually quite a few things to consider. Having recently given this a bit of research and field test, here are the things you want to consider (that I didn’t the first time around because I still had the newborn mommy brain):
1. Is there a Child Care guideline or policy? Will parents be informed in writing if there is a change in policy?
Every gym kids room/club should have a policy. If they do not have a written policy, that should be a warning sign that things are probably organized haphazardly and not done professionally.
2. What is the ratio of children to staff? What is considered full?
Some gyms have a ratio based on age; some have it based on pure number of children. Some might not even have a ratio guideline at all. I recently stopped in at my gym’s childcare room and there were 18 kids (from months old infants, toddlers, to tweens) to one caregiver. It is summer, so I believe this is a contributing factor. There is only one caregiver available at any given time, and you never know how many kids might show up! I felt uneasy and sorry for the caregiver to have to take care of so many kids and after chewing this over in my head a bit more I started to feel bad about my children for having to be there when it is so crowded like that. I mean, when you have so many kids running around and only one person to watch all of them something is bound to happen. Kids can get easily over-stimulated, aggravated, and act out in that kind of environment.
Even people who are trained in child development probably won’t be able to handle 20 kids. Yes, parents are on the premises, but what if there is an emergency like a fire or earthquake (I live in California)? At my current gym there the full capacity is based on fire code occupancy, so it is possible that there can be more kids to one staff member. There is a reason why ratios exist for childcare licensing regulation: It is impossible for an adult to safely care for a group of 6 children under the age of 2, in addition to eight older children.
3. Where can the kids go to the bathroom?
What happens when someone pees or poops? If you have toddlers in the toilet training stage of development, they will need to go to the potty at some point. Pee and poop are not easy to plan around it, especially if you feed your children before you get to the gym! Some gym childcare facilities will not change diapers, some will. I recently have checked out gyms that have kiddy toilets in their bathrooms that are also equipped with changing tables. If you have a gym childcare that will change diapers, you are less likely to be called away from your class or exercise to change a diaper.
I have had my share of being called away from my class or exercise to do diaper duty. I don’t mind changing diapers, but it is kind of embarrassing to be interrupting the class. At my current gym the child care room is up a flight of stairs and there is no bathroom within easy steps of the kids. Since there is only one caregiver at any given time, the caregiver would have to call down to the front office, ask for a backup and wait for that person to arrive before she can take the child down to the bathroom to go to the potty. There is a portable potty in the childcare room but it tends to be filthy and not cleaned (the caregiver rightly suggested that it not be used given that condition), so younger children are more prone to peeing in their pants/pull-ups in that situation. Since the gym childcare doesn’t change diapers, I ended up having to change my child’s diaper down the stairs on the other side of the facility in the bathroom, where the only changing table resides. My letter to management complaining about the filthy portable potty in the childcare room went unanswered.
4. Are the children all in one big room? What is in that room?
In many gyms, children of varying ages are all piled up in one big room, and when it gets crowded in that one big room, things can get really hectic. Most gym childcare will have toys and TV, if there are kids of different ages in there, are the toys age appropriate and safe? Is the room childproof? Is it baby/crawler/toddler-proof?
Some gyms, like 24 Hour Fitness, have a big room with sections and a built-in playground for the active kids and TV in another area for those who are more quiescent. There are gyms that actually separate out kids into different rooms by ages, which is nice because then you don’t have to worry about toddlers playing around an infant.
Are food permitted there? Is there a table for children to eat snacks? If kids are allowed to eat there, having a table means that less food will fall onto the floor. Children are generally not capable of monitoring what is falling on the floor nor should they be expected to be aware that another younger child might grab their snack as they eat. Children do not get molars until age 4 so it is easy to pick up something and choke on it! Most children also do not know how to ask for help while they are choking so a low enough ratio of adults to kids is important so that caregiver can monitor all of the children to ensure safety.
5. Is the door to the childcare room closed to prevent children from crawling off/walking off?
Recently my child got into trouble because he wanted me and tried to get out the door. My son is almost three and has figured out how to turn the handles on the door. The door to the childcare room, which is on top of a long flight of stairs, is not lockable, so the caregiver had to try to block the doorway to keep my child from getting out to find me. A few times, that door is also left open when I arrive to drop my kids off because the air conditioning isn’t working properly during the hot summer. I always asked for it to be closed before I leave and close it behind me because my baby could crawl out and fall down the stairs!
If there is a bathroom accessible to the childcare room, make sure that door is also closed and toddler proof. Toddlers have been known to drown in small amounts of water.
6. Ask about the qualifications of the caregivers. Do caregivers have group child care experience? Is there high turn over?
Watch how caregiver(s) interact with the children. Do they bend down to their level, give eye-to-eye contact, smile and talk in a pleasant manner? If the ratio of children to caregiver is high, then even the best caregiver can be overwhelmed.
If the same caregivers are there at the given time, then the consistency will help the children feel more secure. It will also be helpful for a child who is new to childcare at a gym to get comfortable with a new caregiver.
What are the children’s rules for behavior while in the room? Are the rules posted for the children? Rules should be age appropriate — generally one rule per year starting at the age of 3. If the kids can’t read, then pictures would be helpful.
7. Ask to see current Infant and adult CPR certification and background check.
In some cases, caregivers might even be fingerprinted depending on the facility. Previously, I have only asked if the caregivers have CPR certification and background check and never asked to see it for myself.
8. How often are the rooms and toys cleaned?
Gyms are notorious for being a germ fest, and in this age of MRSA, it is important to make sure that our gym facilities keep good habits. Infection is spread most often by children putting dirty toys in their mouth, so check your childcare center’s cleaning practices.
9. What is the check-in/drop-off process like?
When I visited 24 Hour Fitness, I saw that they have a very clear policy for drop-off and checking in, one that is efficient and yet can be a bit rigid and unyielding. They have you check in with the finger scan, then print out name labels for your children, and then they are let in the kids’ room. However, only one parent can be there to check-in or pick up at a time, so if a parent is already in there, then the next parent will have to wait. Also it is their policy that parents do not stay in the childcare room, so I wasn’t able to stay and help acclimate my child to the environment. Depending on the temperament of your child, this may or may not be a problem. My son was off and running to the play structure, while my more stranger-danger girl did not fare so well — she was only in there 5 minutes before I was called back to take care of her, and since I cannot stay in there, I had to take her out. My son wanted to stay and play, so I let him, but that didn’t really work because there was nowhere else I can be with a child in 24 Hour Fitness’ facility. It wasn’t long before I also had to take my son out as well, even though he was having fun.
10. Keep an eye on your kids behavior and listen to your instincts.
I had an uneasy feeling when my son told me one day that he is a bad boy. I told him that he sometimes does bad things, but he is not a bad boy. My husband and I generally steer clear of these kind of labels when it comes to our children, because we only want to label behavior and not the person. I brushed it off when it first happened but as he repeated saying that he is a bad boy, I started to talk to the teachers at his preschool, who told me that they do not call Roger a bad boy. Then I received a harshly worded letter from my gym telling me that they are suspending my son from their babysitting for 90 days (which was arbitrarily set because there isn’t a policy in place and this was at the discretion of the owner). I was devastated by the letter initially — but then everything clicked after I picked myself up from my puddle of tears and did some investigation. Clearly, this environment was not a good fit for us, and looking back, the signs have been there all along.
Sometime things with children are a moving target, and a new situation may work for a while but not work out, in spite of the best of intentions. It can be tough dealing with child care, especially because of how many gym membership works, but remember that your child’s well-being is much more important than the few hundred dollars of initiation fee you might lose if things don’t work out. You can try to avoid problems by taking the time to test out every place and ask for free guest passes for 5 days and see how things work out, or simply pay at a per-visit basis for a while so you can observe and take it all in. In the end, the care of your children is worth sweating over.
Here’s the excel spreadsheet I made to compare all the gyms with childcare that I visited before choosing our family gym. Please feel free to download and make it your own: Family Gym Comparison Matrix