Free-Range Kids

Did This Daycare Really Have to Dismantle Its Swing Sets to Score Higher on a State Test?

An investigation


Romrodinka / Dreamstime

Twin Rivers Christian School, the early childhood center tearing down its swing sets so that the kids won't be tempted to swing for more time than regulations permit, has misinterpreted the state's new early childhood mandates, says Rachael Brown-Kendall, quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) administrator in Washington's Department of Children, Youth, and Families.

"I love swings," said Brown-Kendall. "Children in child care should be swinging. There is no time limit on swings, if they're actively swinging."

Brown-Kendall suspects the center didn't understand that kids can swing as much as they want, as long as infants are not left unattended in bucket swings.

And yet Erin Hart, the school's superintendent, sent me the results of a mock investigation done using the state's new regulations, on which the school had received a "low range" rating on its play schedule. The reason for this, the trained inspector wrote, was that she observed one child, between the ages of 1 and 2, "contained in the swing outside for 15 minutes, plus she was held multiple times, which limited her access to materials."

It's not that the girl was left unattended in the swing. She wasn't. "Contained" simply means that she was in the swing. The regulations are written to ensure that kids get a wide swath of play experiences throughout the day, and if a child is "contained" too long—even in a swing—that means the child isn't playing with other materials, like sand. The fear is that the kids won't be stimulated enough if they aren't able to access different toys and activities all throughout the day. And since the child was also "held multiple times," this too was "contained time." More demerits. That's how the inspector interpreted the rules.

The inspector also observed that one of the toys was a Beanie Baby with "beady eyes." A no-no. And the inspector noted that "there was not a set of blocks that measure 2×2."

Speaking of size, the inspector found another egregious infraction: By regulation, the cribs are supposed to be three feet apart. But when measured, the distances between the cribs at Twin Rivers were as follows: "41 inches, 36.5 inches, 39 inches, 34 inches, and 38 inches." Those two cribs, two inches too close, earned the center another low mark.

It also received a low "indoor space" grade because when the inspector entered the center, which has been running for two generations and cares for about a third of the county's babies, she encountered overlapping "bags and items on the hooks." Backpacks touching? For shame. What's more, not all the high chairs had a footrest. "There can't be any dangly feet in a high chair," the inspector wrote.

In order to receive government subsidies, centers must past with an overall rating of at least three out of five. Brown-Kendall says the regulations are designed to ensure that "children have access to developmentally appropriate, engaging materials," and have "adults who are supporting them in engaging activities throughout the day." These are great goals I enthusiastically share. We all want engaged, loving people caring for our kids in a nice environment.

But that is not something that can be achieved via second-by-second, inch-by-inch regulation. Hart tells me Twin Rivers also got marked down in the mock evaluation because the caregivers declined to narrate the children's activities during play time, receiving points off for "prolonged moments of silence."

Obviously, it's quite possible that another inspector—the real one—will take a less rigid view of what constitutes stimulation, wasted time, good toys, and loving care. That next person may not even use a stopwatch to time all adult-baby interactions, as this one did. But it's also possible the next one will be even more obtuse.

Observing whether a child care center feels warm, homey, clean, and stimulating makes more sense than measuring the inches between backpack hooks, says Philip Howard, author of the new book, Try Common Sense. The problem, he says, is that "there's no 'correct' way of playing, or raising a child. Overbearing and mindless bureaucracy causes people to fail and rebel."

Some may even start tearing out their hair—or their swing sets.