The Kids Are Alright

Here are our picks for the best child-care centers in greater Baltimore.

By Christina Breda Antoniades

–llustration by Amy Blay

What do you want from a child-care center? It's probably a long list: You're looking for a home away from home, a place that's warm and relaxed, but orderly and efficient; nurturing and fun, but unfailingly devoted to molding little minds and preparing youngsters for the rigors of kindergarten and beyond. Of course, it must be secure—locked entries and vigilant staffers are the word of the day—safe, and clean. But not so much so that it feels institutional. It helps if there's a highly educated and trained staff that's been on board forever. And if it proves to be a place your child delights in attending—if he or she is bolting into the classroom, rather than clinging to your pant's leg with a wimper—you'll probably do a little jig as you walk out the door each morning.

Fortunately, as tall an order as it is, finding the perfect child-care center is not impossible. In fact, there's no shortage of centers in the greater Baltimore area that offer just such an environment.

We scoured the area and turned up a host of fabulous providers, then narrowed our list to 12 we believe provide the very best in care. Read on to learn why they caught our eye.

Knowledge Beginnings

Where: Laurel Web: knowledgebeginnings.com Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., after-school care and part-time care offered. Ages: Six weeks to 12 years. Fees: $269-$288 per week. Highlights: Offers staffers a tuition-assistance program; many staffers are working toward a CDA (child development associate) certification or degree. All staffers are also trained in CPR and first aid and the center is NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) accredited. Breakfast, lunch, and two snacks are included in the tuition.

Looks aren't everything, of course, but it's hard not to be impressed when you walk into the gleaming Knowledge Beginnings child-care center in Laurel, with its smartly polished hardwood flooring and its tastefully painted walls.

Classrooms circle a large central area that houses dedicated space for special subjects like art, science, and language and literacy instruction. It's a clever setup that not only gives kids a nice time out of their classroom each day but also ensures that each of the main classrooms boasts plenty of natural light and direct access to the outdoors.

Other nice touches include infant, toddler, and two-year-olds' rooms with two-way glass so parents can take a sneak peek at their little ones, plus a closed-circuit TV system that can serve a similar purpose. Inside the infant rooms, laminated pictures of the children adorn the floor, where tiny crawlers are most likely to see them. Food is labeled and color-coded to avoid any mix-ups and daily written reports to parents include more than just a recitation of diaper changes and feeding times.

The curriculum is play-based but preschoolers and pre-K students have some access to computers for educational use and can take advantage of optional "enrichment" programs in phonics, math, music, Spanish, science, and cooking.

Celebree Learning Centers

Where: Bel Air (plus 17 other locations in MD) Web: celebree.com Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Fees: $80-$230 a week. Ages: Six weeks to 12 years (for before- and after-school care), part-time care is available. Highlights: Most teachers hold bachelor's degrees and all lead teachers have CPR and first aid training. Celebree also offers teachers financial assistance for career development. (In turn, it boasts a turnover of just 7 percent.)

It's a gorgeous spring morning but all's quiet in the infant room. Two staffers sit in padded gliders, each rocking a baby in her arms. (One has another infant bobbing lightly in a bouncer at her feet.) Nearby, two more little ones are fast asleep in their cribs.

 Elsewhere, the action is at full throttle. The toddlers have sunscreen on and are ready to conquer the playground, while their older peers gear up to tackle the playground equipment. In the preschool rooms, the three-, four- and five-year olds are in various stages of play.

Regardless of what they're doing, each of the students—or "friends" as they're called here—is almost certainly in the midst of a learning experience, says center director Shelby Logue, and that's by design. In addition to using something called the Conscious Discipline program to teach social skills, Celebree uses another program, the Creative Curriculum, which centers on "purposeful play."

Padonia Park Child Centers

Where: Cockeysville Web: padoniaparkclub.com Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mon. to Fri. Fees: From $939 per month for full-time care for four- and five-year-olds to $1,150 per month for infants. Ages: Six weeks to 12 years (for before- and after-school care for Pinewood Elementary students); part-time care is offered. Highlights: Preschool and pre-K staffers have bachelor's degrees in early childhood education or family studies. The four-year-old and pre-kindergarten programs are accredited through MSDE. All staff are first-aid and CPR-qualified, exceeding the state mandate of one staffer for every 20 children.

When six-year-old Erica Gartland headed off to kindergarten earlier this year, she fell into the routine without missing a beat, says her mother, Kristen Gartland. "She entered kindergarten reading. She was prepared—she knew all the rules that you have in a structured program."

And Erica knew one other valuable thing that many kindergartners don't: "She's an excellent swimmer," says her mom. That's mostly thanks to Padonia Park's summer program, which includes eight weeks of daily swim lessons for all of its students over the age of three.

Located on the grounds of Padonia Park swim club, the child-care center not only has access to the pools, but also to three playgrounds and 30 leafy acres—perfect for nature walks and science activities.

So what goes on inside? Padonia has just started offering an infant program, although slots are filling up fast. For the older children, the focus, says director Cindy Carter, is on teaching independence, social skills, self-help skills, physical fitness, dealing with stress, and "academics." Classrooms are run by experienced teachers and filled with opportunities for creative play. The result: children who are ready for school, and make a splash getting there.

College of Notre Dame of Maryland: A Child's Place

Where: North Baltimore Web: ndm.edu/about/achildsplace Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Mon. through Fri. Ages: Three to six. Fees: From $920-$985 per month. Highlights: MSDE-accredited and seeking a Middle States accreditation. All teachers have college degrees in education or a related field.

Ask around about child care in northern Baltimore City and chances are you'll be directed to A Child's Place, which has an enduring word-of-mouth reputation as a high-quality early education center.

Turnover at the center, which is tucked away in the center of the College of Notre Dame's campus, is low and the staff highly experienced. "Half the people here are grandparents, although we don't look it," says director Leslie Hinebaugh. But there's also an infusion of youth, thanks to a work-study program that brings Notre Dame students in to help out. Notre Dame and Loyola University both use A Child's Place as an observation and training site.

While there is plenty of play going on each day, the curriculum, which includes instruction in English language arts, social studies, science, math, Spanish, music, and art, is not play-based. Instead, as Hinebaugh says, "our program is a combination of academics and love." That translates to lots of hands-on, one-on-one instruction.

Downtown Baltimore Child Care

Where: Downtown Baltimore (Its Park Avenue location will close in August, although its University Center location will remain open.) Web: dbcckids.org Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (beginning Aug. 30, currently 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.), part-time care available for all but infants. Ages: 12 weeks through pre-K. Fees: $1,049-$1,671 per month. Highlights: All staffers have taken infant and child CPR and first aid and are slated to take medication administration training this summer; many have or are working toward degrees.

You don't really expect to hear the squeals of delight or the chatter of little voices here, in a space nudged up against the University of Maryland at Baltimore's downtown campus. But behind the brown wooden fence on Arch Street, DBCC has carved out a little oasis of fun for the wee ones and built itself a strong reputation for high-quality care—so much so that it's an approved trainer for the child care community.

How do they do it? First off, high child-to-staff ratios—in the infant rooms, for example, it's 2.25:1, compared to a state mandated 3:1. And the facility itself is thoughtfully designed to spur imaginations and engage even the tiniest tykes. DBCC's 8,000-square-foot playground—divided into a grassy clearing for picnicking and story time, an infant/toddler yard, and a preschool area—offers plenty of time for active play.

But what really defines DBCC may be its philosophy, which is heavy on learning-through-play. The center shies away from rote memorization, as well as screen time. "We have a TV and VCR, although I think it is circa 1982," jokes executive director Margo Sipes.

Bryn Mawr Little School

Where: North Baltimore Web: brynmawrschool.org Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Mon. through Fri. Fees: Full-time for ages three to five is $16,000 for 10 months; limited part-time hours available. Ages: eight weeks to six years. Highlights: Lunch and snacks included in tuition. Great staff-to-child ratios, beautiful facility on a leafy, private-school campus; most teachers have a bachelor's degree in education (several have graduate degrees). MSDE and AIMS (Association of Independent Maryland Schools) accredited.

When the three teachers in Bryn Mawr Little School's four-year-old group wanted to reinforce their pupils' understanding of the alphabet, they could have passed out photocopies and let the drilling begin. Instead, they had the 24 children lie on the floor in groups of three or four and curl their bodies into the shape of each letter. In the end, the class had an inventive series of letter-shaped photos to display in the Little School's annual art show. "They had such fun with it. And it's more experiential and meaningful to them," says director Pat Wells Sheridan. "They all remember exactly which letters they were."

It's a good example of the Little School's hands-on approach, which offers plenty of "planned experiences in all areas of development and learning," says Sheridan. Of course, there's also lots of free time, which can take place outside on two roomy, shaded playgrounds or inside, in a first-rate facility that boasts sunny rooms and educational materials strategically placed where children can reach them with little adult intervention.

Being on the K-12 campus also has its benefits: Little School students interact with the big kids and Bryn Mawr's cafeteria provides a hot lunch for Little School students and teachers, who dine together, family-style.

Play and Learn

Where: Hunt Valley (and other locations) Web: playandlearnmaryland.org Hours: 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; part-time care available for all but infants. Fees: $194-$226 per week. Ages: Six weeks through kindergarten. Highlights: Not-for-profit, working toward MSDE accreditation; all teachers participate in the MSDE credentialing program.  

It's go time in the infant room at Play and Learn Hunt Valley. On the floor, one determined baby is working on his crawling skills. Nearby, two infants in cribs are just emerging from sleep and are showing signs that they're ready to be picked up. And, separated by a small gate, an older infant is sitting in a chair nibbling some lettuce.

In the children's rooms, there's plenty to love, too. The curriculum is based on learning through play, and the daily journals follow the children through their years at Play and Learn. "It will go in their personal portfolio when they graduate from the program," says program director Marina Eleni Maier. Not only do the journals help teachers and parents track progress, but "it's a great gift to give to each of the parents as a keepsake," she says.

Temple Oheb Shalom's Learning Ladder

Where: Pikesville Web: templeohebshalom.org/lladder.htm Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mon. through Fri. Fees: From $886 per month for full-time care for three- and four-year-olds to $1,380 per month for full-time care for non-member infants; part-time care available for older children. Ages: 10 weeks to five years. Highlights: Working toward MSDE accreditation; participates in MSDE's teacher credentialing program.

If you hear music coming from inside Oheb Shalom's Learning Ladder, then it must be Wednesday morning. In the spacious multi-purpose room, music teacher Becky Gordon is strumming a guitar while she and eight three-year-olds sing "Boker Tov." (That's Hebrew for "good morning.")

Like the rest of the center, the room is decked out in primary colors and looks thoroughly pre-school, but the real focus here is on learning, which is done in a play-based, non-academic environment. And while not all of its children are Jewish, if you're interested in having your kiddo learn about Jewish culture and possibly pick up a little Hebrew, you'll find ample opportunity here.

La Petite Academy 

Where: Towson Web: lapetite.com Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Ages: Six weeks through five years. Fees: $185-$230 per week. Highlights: In the process of obtaining National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA). Breakfast, snack, and lunch are included.

For anyone eager to take an active role in shaping their child's day-care environment, there's nothing more satisfying than seeing parents' suggestions embraced by those in charge. At La Petite, "they want parents to bring their creativity to the table," says Lori Hardesty, whose nine-month-old and three-year-old attend La Petite. "And they give us great support to make it happen."

Case in point: A fellow parent's suggestion that the center institute a "Special Person" day, in which students can invite an adult friend or relative to spend time in the classroom. Shortly after the idea was presented to the parent board, center director Emily Sweet was hard at work bringing the plan to life.

In fact, thanks to Sweet and others at the center, La Petite, which is located on the campus of GBMC, manages to create a tight-knit community of families "where everyone seems to know everybody and the teachers and staff know all the kids, even if they're not the primary teacher," says Hardesty.

As a parent—Sweet's own two-year-old is a student here—"just watching my child in her classroom, I really see the teachers incorporating our philosophy, which is learning through play."

The Learning Tree Preschool & Child Development Center

Where: Annapolis Web: learningtreecdc.net Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fees: From $189/week for three- and four-year-olds to $300/week for infants. Ages: Six weeks to four-and-a-half years. Highlights: All staffers have CPR and first aid training; 50 percent of the staff has medication-administration training; the center is accredited by NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) and has a MSDE-approved preschool. All staffers take part in the MSDE credentialing program and many either have or are pursuing a degree.

When Lee and Cecelia Pfeffer left the world of public school education in 1984, they didn't stray too far. Instead, they combined their learning know-how—he had 13 years of teaching experience; she had 17—and opened the Learning Tree, first in their home and

later in an Burtonsville office park. Sixteen years later, they've expanded from an original capacity of 17 children to 88, and added a second location in Annapolis that is run by two of their children, both of whom have degrees in early education.

For the older kids, there are formal(ish) school hours from 8:30 a.m. to noon and then 3 to 4:30 p.m. But The Learning Tree follows a play-based philosophy, so what you won't find here are three- and four-year-olds sitting at desks and tackling endless worksheets. What you will find: a child-first environment and a focus on continual improvement.

"You know that old saying about not being able to teach an old dog new tricks?" asks Learning Tree vice president Lee Pfeffer. At Learning Tree, the pressure's on the old dogs to learn those new tricks.

By August 2011, for example, all child-care centers must comply with new regulations requiring at least one staffer per center to take medication-administration training. "We already have 10," notes Pfeffer. "And we started two years ago."

Step-by-Step Children's Learning Center

Where: Sparks Web: stepbystepclc.com Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fees: Full-time care ranges from $230 per week for four- and five-year-olds to $310 per week for infants; part-time care is available. Ages: Six weeks to six years, plus before- and after-school care for kindergarteners (with bus service to Sparks Elementary). Highlights: The director has a master's degree in early education, several teachers have degrees (one also went to Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Clown College, which surely comes in handy with the six-and-under set), and others are pursuing degrees. All staffers have first aid and CPR training; infant teachers are certified in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) training. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks included in tuition.

If it's 2 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, it's most likely quiet at Step-by-Step, save for some gentle music floating through each of the center's rooms. Nap time! But while the kiddies rest, the center's teachers are in high gear, cleaning up—with eco-friendly products—and returning their rooms to order, ready for an afternoon of learning through play.

Whether they're outside on the spacious playground or indoors in one of the center's eight classrooms, kids here have no shortage of ways to keep busy. Learning is both structured and free-form and includes language, art, music, math, phonics, Spanish, computer classes, Rebounders (for gymnastics), cooking, and science. The curriculum is "constantly refreshed to reflect the latest trends in teaching techniques," says center director Gabrielle Frizzera-Flowers, who opened Step-by-Step 10 years ago and whose two children attend.

The business has grown beyond Frizzera-Flowers's expectations—her original "great room" is now a classroom for five-year-olds. That's a good sign, but also means there's usually a waiting list—six months or more for older children; a year for younger children.

St. Paul's Plus

Where: Brooklandville Web: stpaulsplus.org Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fees: From $915 a month for part-time infant care to $13,950 annually for four-year-olds. Ages: Six weeks to five years. Highlights: All lead teachers have a bachelor's degree, while assistants have at least 90 hours' training, plus experience. Infant and toddler staff have an additional 45 hours of training.

It's 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday and a tiny army of infants are strapped into their triple strollers. On another day, they might just sit contentedly while their teachers take them for a stroll on St. Paul's gorgeous campus. (The center, which is co-ed, is owned and operated by St. Paul's School for Girls.) But today they're headed for the girls' school's playing fields, where they'll roll around on a blanket or crawl on the grass. Later, they'll head back for a snack and maybe a nap and some tummy time on a soft rug. Not a bad way to spend a day.

 And their slightly older peers have it pretty good, too. The center's physical surroundings are first-rate, with a setup that's orderly and well-planned and boasts lots of natural light and room to move. There's also a robust curriculum that is "hands-on and experiential," says director Isabel Nussbaumer. To help develop social skills, teachers use the same Conscious Discipline program employed by Celebree. And the regular school day includes time with teachers in French, Spanish, science, music, and the library, as well as visits from instructors in Abrakadoodle (for art) and Rebounders (for gymnastics). For an extra fee, parents can enroll children in afternoon activities like soccer, computers, and dance. There is a kitchen for cooking projects, a multipurpose room for indoor play, and a library.