A guide for parents in Canada

What is quality in early childhood education and care?

  Center-based programs that have positive impacts on young children’s development provide some combination of the following features:

  • · highly-skilled staff,
  • · small class sizes and high adult-to-child ratios,
  • · a language-rich environment,
  • · age-appropriate curricula and stimulating materials in a safe physical setting,
  • · warm, responsive interactions between staff and children
A science-based framework for early childhood policy, 2007.

This summary comes from a research report from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University. At the same time, personal ideas about quality child care can vary depending on values, beliefs and cultural or social context and also on who is making the judgment.

Through the eyes of children

For children, a high-quality program may mean feeling accepted for who they are no matter what their ability or culture. It means having friends and responsive adults, being emotionally and physically comfortable and the possibility of having a variety of fun, interesting and engaging activities.

Through the eyes of parents

For most parents, quality child care safeguards a child’s health and safety; the child is happy, and the program is conveniently located and affordable.

For many parents, quality child care is key to balancing work and family, so that parents have peace of mind while they are at work.

Other parents may define a high quality program as incorporating tangible school readiness activities, such as pre- or early reading or learning to count, or highlighting learning social skills such as cooperation. Or they may define a quality environment as one in which their families’ culture and their child’s abilities are respected.

Or parents may define high quality child care as an environment in which their child is happy, makes friends, has interesting and positive experiences, and learns about a wide variety of things. 

Or… all of the above…and more.

Overall elements of quality


While there is no single definition of quality in child care, there are some overall elements of child care that are identified as critical to the well-being of children. These include:

  • Health, safety and good hygiene
  • Good nutrition
  • A well-maintained environment set up for children
  • An adequate number of staff who are sensitive and responsive to children
  • Opportunities for active play—especially outdoors
  • Opportunities for quiet play and rest
  • Opportunities for developing motor, social, language and cognitive skills through play
  • Positive interactions with adults
  • Practices that support positive interaction amongst children
  • Facilitation of emotional growth
  • Participation of, support for and communication with parents
  • Respect for diversity and difference, gender equality and inclusion of children with disabilities

As well, high quality child care is generally understood to have

  • Broad learning and development goals for children, going beyond narrow academic aims like early literacy and numeracy to social, emotional, cultural, artistic and physical goals
  • An approach that “lets children be children”, which means learning through play and experiencing a wide range of artistic, cultural, cognitive, social and physical activities.
See Factors that set the stage for quality for more details and our additonal resources on quality
This more detailed list may also be helpful: What to look for - a checklist.

Unregulated child care

Many families with parents in the labour force and no close family members who can provide child care use an unregulated arrangement, either in a family child care home (a caregiver’s home) or in the child’s own home. This means parents have sole responsibility for assessing the quality of the child care, managing the relationship with the care provider and are on their own in finding a new provider if the arrangement breaks down or ceases.

Guidelines for assessing quality in unregulated child care

When looking for an unregulated child care arrangement it’s advisable to become well informed about health and safety and the elements of high quality child care.

One way to start is to get to know your province or territory’s requirements for regulated family child care as a starting point and a point of comparison in such areas as

  • Health and safety
  • Programming
  • Maximum numbers of children by age
  • Physical space
  • Caregiver training and support

This approach can provide some basic guidelines for assessing unregulated family child care, since there is no public oversight or monitoring, no support system and no training requirements.

You may want to consider a written contract with an unregulated family child care provider. A contract or agreement should include such things as payment amount and schedule, benefits, hours, sick days and holidays, cancellation and termination of care, etc. A sample contract for the Live-In Caregiver Program (below) may be useful for designing this contract.

Child care in your own home: Terms of employment

When the child care is in your own home, you will need to negotiate the terms of employment with the caregiver.

In the case of in-child’s-home care provided by a caregiver who is part of Immigration Canada’s Live-In Caregiver Program, there must be a written contract between the employer (the parent) and the employee (the caregiver). It must include: job duties, hours of work, wages, holiday and sick leave entitlements and termination and resignation terms. A number of the elements included in this program’s sample contract may be useful for families using other varieties of in-child’s-home child care.