A busy day in the life of a daycare provider The joy of caring for children carries them through By Bj Richards and Judi Minter

Photo by Josh Hawkins Bj Richards, left, holds Phoebe Spratt while Judi Minter holds Emory Reichmann-Crowley.

How do you do what you do? Where do you find the patience? Aren't you exhausted? How can you stand having kids in your home all day, every day? We get these questions all the time from friends, family and neighbors. Most adults are baffled by our work as licensed home daycare providers. Our two families have shared a brick two-flat home for 15 years-first in Chicago's Logan Square and the past eight years in Oak Park-where we also run our businesses.

It's like any job, we say. There are moments during the day when we feel frustrated, inadequate and unappreciated. We have a fine balance to maintain throughout our 10-hour day-the intimacy of sharing our homes with other families versus having our personal lives up for close scrutiny. We often feel drained by trying to meet of needs of each child and his or her family, and those of our own families.

But our day unfolds without having to dress up, run to meet a train, sit in an office or follow corporate policies. We are multi-tasking executives and time-managment experts. We juggle a tide of activity, a rhythm of chaos and calm, the ebb and flow of emotion and interaction; outdoor and indoor, predictable and unexpected, solitary discoveries and social skill-building.

We have job satisfaction in watching each unique child develop. The joy and love far outweigh the difficulties.

Good morning The day begins at 5:30 a.m. before the children arrive. The morning chores include: • unloading the dishwasher, • filling the color-coded sippy cups, • preparing the daily fresh fruit and veggies platter, • prepping lunch, • setting up the diapering area, • carrying the bulk-bought items up from basement storage, • fastening the booster seats, • checking the art table supplies, • hanging yesterday's now-dry paintings in the entrance hall-our art gallery-and • checking to see our homes are clean, safe and inviting for our daytime friends.

All while getting our own families out the door.

Breakfast? Usually, it's a power shake while on the move.

The kids start arriving at 8 a.m. Bj's group is eight 2- to 6-year-olds, Judi has six children, including a 3-month-old baby.

Carrying their backpacks full of treasures to show us, and the books, videos or toys they have borrowed overnight, they come in ready for a morning hug.

They line up their shoes "in the shoestore" and kiss their parents good-bye. Sometimes separations are tearful and parents look already bedraggled from their morning rush.

That's when we pull out a book to ease the transition. We read books on the couch, always making room for new arrivals. Our charges benefit from the language, content, tone and the message: We are dedicating time to read with you.

Going to the stacks Children's books are our passion. Our enormous and diverse collection of illustrated, multicultural children's literature is our most valued teaching tool. Our joint library includes books that cover nearly every possible situation a child may be experiencing now or in the future-different families, intergenerational relationships, illness, death, moving, new siblings and adoption.

We use books to introduce values and concepts that celebrate difference and encourage conflict resolution. We help children analyze books because many have biases or words that are hurtful or exclusionary. Instead of "banning the book," we ask the children how they would improve it. We might even write to the publisher.

One of our goals is to encourage children's critical thinking, empowering them to be activists. The flexibility of a small setting enables us to integrate children's ideas into our agenda.

Sometimes we just postpone our agenda. We can take time to observe birds and bunnies and flowers in the yard. Or to mix and measure banana bread when we notice an overripe bunch.

When a 4-year-old boy in Judi's group brought in the silly song, "On Top of Spaghetti," the children were so engaged we made it an activity theme for the day. We made meatballs-pretend ones made from Play-Doh and real ones for lunch. We added verses to the song, danced and painted with string. We pulled out two books to read-Spaghetti and Meatballs for All: A Math Story and Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti.

It was a day of impromptu fun and learning.

Bottling and boiling Physical needs are constant: wiping noses, changing diapers, offering nutritious snacks, laying out rest-time cots and bedding, helping a child with toilet learning, washing hands before eating, encouraging their mastery of the slide and swings, running to the big tree and back.

The job requires an unflappable ability to do several things at once. Bottle feeding the baby while reading a story and cuddling, supervising free play while pasta boils, tying a shoe while talking through an upsetting dispute and ensuring another child plays gently with the baby.

But the teachable moments exhilarate and validate us.

As we dry the tears of a child who has fallen or had her feelings hurt, or explain to older children that a toddler "is just learning," we are helping children feel safe and understood, as well as develop empathy for others.

Children learn math concepts when we cut an apple for snack, build with blocks or stretch a line of objects from one door to the next. Using dolls and toys, children learn social skills and negotiation. We give them extra tips when disagreements occur. We give them a script, such as "May I be next?" or help them sort out how to make a fair decision.

Two 5-year-olds recently needed help through the power struggles of playing. One morning, we overheard escalating bickering, then scampering feet. They came to us to pronounce proudly, "We solved the problem ourselves."

Getting it all together We work together. The children help, promoting cooperation and patience: preschoolers delight in retrieving something for the baby, or turning on the faucet for a toddler.

The mixed-age group gives children a chance to learn from one another. Children have the chance to be the youngest, middle and oldest child as the group gradually changes.

Predictable routines provide stability and some simple house rules preserve order. Limits such as "puzzles and pieces stay on the dining room table" are explained to children who quickly internalize them and help each other remember.

Music and art are integrated into the week. We sing, play recorded music throughout the day and do special art projects as part of a curriculum. But we still remain open to a sudden idea-such as the time we made colorful paper chains to decorate a bush in the front yard to mark a child's adoption day anniversary, something she announced as she entered in the morning with muffins for all.

Our two groups come together at least two mornings a week to hear Tracey Ellert, an interactive storyteller, or work with Kim Vulinovic, a certified Yoga Kids facilitator. And we come together for special events such as outdoor art day, circus day, the winter snow-sculpting party, the family valentine display and the spring egg hunt. We also celebrate special holidays. We have dim sum in Chinatown for Chinese New Year. And we mark the Mexican Day of the Dead on Nov. 1-2, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday on Jan. 15 and International Women's Day on March 8. These celebrations create a sense of community.

The day ends around 5:30 p.m. At the collective cleanup time, we play a Woody Guthrie song that tells us, "We all work together with a wiggle and a jiggle, if we all work together it won't take long!"

Parents hear highlights and talk with Judi at the end of the day. Bj communicates with parents each day via e-mail giving anecdotes and the day's activities. In turn, parents e-mail Bj updates about their evenings and weekends, which helps extend conversations with the children.

The benefits As with any job, there are downsides. Many childcare providers, since they are self-employed, pay high health insurance premiums and are not eligible for the benefits of a group plan. Very few have pension plans and legal liabilities are a constant worry. Sick days are taken only in dire circumstances because finding qualified substitutes is very difficult. Our families and neighbors also tolerate additional traffic and noise in our homes and on our blocks every day.

Certainly there are days when our children wish they could come home to a peaceful house and have our full attention. It is stressful to know that sometimes our professional responsibilities keep us from fulfilling their wishes. But we believe our daughters-we have three between us-have benefited greatly by growing up within our large community.

They have shared their homes, toys, books and their mothers their entire lives. When they were little, they were loved and nurtured by the older children and developed special relationships with some of the parents. As they have grown, they have enjoyed being the adored "big sisters" to the daycare kids. They have a very clear understanding of what we do all day and the important role we play in children's lives.

Taking care of ourselves is another key issue. It would be easy to let the childcare consume our lives. Working at home can be isolating, but being in the same building, we support each other emotionally and intellectually. We volunteer in a variety of groups and try to keep ourselves involved in the world outside our small scene.

We use naptimes as our break for making phone calls, reading and e-mailing. It is those breaks in our 10-hour day that helps us survive the threat of "burnout."

We get out. Bj and Judi walk their dogs daily. Often, we run an errand before making dinner, for a change of scenery.

Our houses are professionally cleaned every three weeks. We take three weeks of paid vacation per year. Our families pay us for 52 weeks a year, regardless of the child's attendance.

What keeps us going? It is living in the moment and helping families appreciate the enchantment of each stage in life, plus the realization that we are empowering the next generation. And then there are the moments:

One day, holding hands as we cross the parking lot walking into a restaurant, a 4-year-old says, "Look at us, we are just like a family." These moments make our hearts sing. We feel privileged to be sharing in the care and development of these young children. Since no two days are the same, we are always wondering what will happen next. . . .


Bj Richards has been caring for young children for 26 years. Over the years, she and her 15-year-old daughter have shared their home with hundreds of families. Judi Minter has a master's degree in pre-elementary education from George Mason University and taught preschool. When she had her own daughters, now 13 and 15, she moved to a family childcare program.



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