The Day-Care Dilemma

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It's confession time (since I'm pretty sure I'm past the statute of limitations on substandard parenting moments): I never really thought much about the resort day cares I put my girls into when I went skiing.

At home, I toiled for months to find the right nanny. I interviewed candidates over and over, grilled their references, questioned and re-questioned my decision until, finally, I had to make a choice. Then I'd go skiing and just throw my kids in whatever was available slopeside.

That was 14 and 10 years ago, respectively. Today, I'm a little surprised at my behavior. After all, it isn't as if a child-care provider for a single day or weekend is any less important than a long-term one. And it isn't as if I couldn't have done the research. It's just that I wanted to ski so bad that I had to think quickly (i.e. not at all) and get out there.

The good news is that ski resort day-care operations are, for the most part, so well planned and executed, parents don't have to turn a blind eye as I did. With a little research and know-how, you can make sure your child is well cared for while you ski your brains out. It's just a matter of knowing what to ask and how to plan ahead.

Who's Minding Junior? For parents, the most important part of any child-care setup is staffing. At ski resorts, since positions are seasonal, it can be a challenge to find good help. But resorts report that, thanks to extensive hiring programs and a bit of luck, they do find good help—and often long-time employees.

"We have been very lucky with that," says Vicki Nash, Children's Center director at Loon Mountain Resort in New Hampshire. "The woman in charge of our babies has been with us for two decades."

Like all resorts I talked to, Loon uses a demanding interview and background-check process for new child-care employees. "We will only talk to people who have had experience or education in this," Nash says. "We do extensive interviews with at least three references, and we do a complete criminal-background check." Loon is fortunate, too, to be close to the campus of Plymouth State College, which has an early-education program. "Many of their students work here for experience," she says. But the most important qualification for any day-care employee, she says, is simple: "They have to love children."

At Crested Butte, Colo., turnover can be an issue, says Ellen Osterling, manager of Kids World. "We have a lot of good responses to job fairs, particularly in the East. The challenge is keeping employees year-to-year." To make up for that, Crested Butte puts all day-care employees through an extensive training program. "We go via the state manual that sets rules, and we take that even further. We also train them in CPR and all that."

While some states, like Colorado, have laws that rule ski-resort day-cares, others, such as New Hampshire, do not. What to ask? Simply, if they have a formal training program, how often an employee works for them and whether a degree-holding manager is always on duty.

In Vermont, state law requires all child-care directors to hold a bachelor's degree in a related field and have experience. At Okemo, director Gail Carbonaro falls into that category, with a master's in early-childhood education. Okemo's hiring process has reaped a 70- to 80-percent return rate in employees, she says, which makes staffing easier. But they still retrain annually to keep up to date on day-care needs and issues.

Once good help is hired, day-cares need to decide how many caregivers they'll provide per child. In state-licensed programs, the numbers are cast in stone and must be adhered to. However, some day-care centers up the requirements. Ask the child-care facility in advance what their ratio is for your child's age group. If they don't have an answer, or say, "It depends on how many children show up," see the red flag and back off.

Location, Location, Location The old real-estate mantra applies to slopeside day-car, too. Location means a lot. Imagine this: You've dropped your precious one off and set out to rack up some vertical. Suddenly, you worry: Is she napping in that strange crib? Whether you can zip by and peek in on your way to the gondola or you have to take three chairs, a mile catwalk and a short hike to get there, you're going to go find out. This can be the difference between getting a few good runs in that day or skiing as long and hard as you please.

At Vail and Beaver Creek, Colo., management realized this right off. "We wanted to be as close to the slopes as we could," says Nancy Nottingham, manager of child-care for both resorts. "We wanted all parents to be able to access their children easily, but it was also very important for us to encourage nursing mothers that they, too, can ski." Both child-care facilities are called Small World. At Vail, the facility is adjacent to Chair 6, one of the resort's easiest lifts to access. At Beaver Creek, it's in the Park Plaza, steps from the main lift.

At Okemo, the infant and child-care center is in a separate building from the ski school, but the two are within yards of each other. And at Killington, Vt., parent check-in is a snap since the entire children's facility is in one building, Ram's Head, which is accessible by a short catwalk and lifts from almost any part of the mountain.

"We made sure the location made sense," says Kevin Anderson, Killington's ski-school director. "There are two tunnels to the Snowshed area (where most adults start out their ski day), and Ram's Head is simple to ski directly into and out of." Killington also streamlined its check-in process, eliminating an unwieldy ticketing component. "Getting in is much smoother now," Anderson says.

What To Seek, What To Expect When it comes to child-care, plan on preregistering. It's not just about planning ahead, says Vail's Nottingham, it's about knowing what the place is all about. For instance, "If a resort doesn't take reservations, I would not even think about using them for child-care," she says. Resorts use reservations to assess staffing needs for the day, and with child-to-provider ratios such an important part of the setup, not knowing could be disastrous.

When you preregister, it's a good idea to let the resort know any special needs your child may have, whether they be dietary, medical or emotional. While no resort day-care can administer medicines, they can take special action for your child if a need arises. An example: When I was planning to leave my youngest daughter at the Killington day-care a few years back, I let them know in advance that my child had Type 1 insulin-dependent diabetes. I told them I would be checking in and that I would provide walkie-talkies. Two days later, the resort called me: A college student who had once worked for them in child-care—and also had Type 1 diabetes—was willing to come back and work that weekend, overseeing my daughter's care. That's service.

If you arrive at the resort the afternoon before your first ski day, Osterling suggests bringing your child by the facility to check it out ahead of time. "Many children have never even been to a day-care before," she says. "You need to prepare your child for where they are going and what it's like. You need for them to understand that you will not be there with them." A first-hand glimpse, she says, is the best way.

Nash suggests packing for day-care the night before, labeling everything and including anything your children might possibly want or need. Remember some "comfort items," such as a favorite stuffed animal or blankie. Remember warm clothing, because the children do go outside often, and backup clothing, in case they get wet. Also pack indoor shoes or slippers to keep toes warm during indoor play. And again, Nash stresses, label everything. It makes morning check-in easier.

Expect registration to take time. The resort needs to know all it can. Look for a registration process that asks all the pertinent questions: how your child likes to be put down for a nap, phone numbers for backup adults (in case you are in a ski accident), medical needs, dietary considerations. Once you check your child in, you should be able to meet the director or the person who oversees your child's age group.

Then comes the time to leave. It doesn't always go smoothly at the start, Nash says. "In many cases, you are going to have an upset child. They've been through a four-hour drive, they got in at midnight, they slept in a strange bed, Dad got them up at 6 a.m. because he wants first tracks, breakfast might have been rushed.... It's not always the best start to a day."

Her advice? Trust that your child will settle in, because 90 percent of the time they do. And if they don't? Make sure your resort has a communications system. At some, beepers are available for parents who are particularly concerned. All have phones accessible on the mountain, and all use the message boards at the bottom of lifts to ask parents to come back in. Most resorts, if not all, should ask you to check on your child by phone or in person a few hours into their first day.

"We encourage parents to check back," says Killington's Anderson. "That's not only good for the child, in case they need the parent, but it's good for the parent, too. Once they see their child settled in and happy, their ski day gets a lot better."

Which is what this is all about. "The way we look at it is, if the child isn't happy, the parent isn't happy," Osterling says. "And what's the point in skiing if you don't feel happy? That's our goal: to set the mood for the whole family so they all can enjoy the mountains."

Anderson agrees. "With each kid comes a whole family," he says. "We always keep that in mind."

THE EXTRA MILE

It's one thing to put together a great child-care program. It's another to wow guests with innovative programs. Here are some examples:

GOOD RATIOS The State of Colorado demands that child-care facilities have an infant-to-provider ratio of 3-to-1. Crested Butte goes a step further, making it 2-to-1. "These are babies we're talking about," says Kids World Manager Ellen Osterling. "We want them to have all the comfort and care they need."

CONSTANT CONTACT Some ski resorts have used pagers for years, particularly for nursing moms. This winter, Vail offers all parents Sprint PCS phones while their children are in day-care. "Many parents have cell phones now," says Child Care Manager Nancy Nottingham, "but there are parts of the mountain where they can't pick up a tower. Ours can be used from any part of Vail."

AT LOCATION Snowbird, Utah, devotes space in the slopeside Cliff Lodge to the often unprofitable child-care center. While it maysacrifice real-estate or hotel dollars, the feel-good return is huge. Skiers at Snowbird can take on all the steeps and freshies they want without ever being more than a couple of pole pushes away at end of each run from where baby is napping.

NONINVASIVE PEEKING You want to check on your child but dread being spotted and reigniting the whole separation thing? Okemo, Vt., has video cameras, with monitors mounted just outside the day-care center (located in the main lodge) to show you just what's going on. It's the perfect way to check on junior without wreaking havoc. asks all the pertinent questions: how your child likes to be put down for a nap, phone numbers for backup adults (in case you are in a ski accident), medical needs, dietary considerations. Once you check your child in, you should be able to meet the director or the person who oversees your child's age group.Then comes the time to leave. It doesn't always go smoothly at the start, Nash says. "In many cases, you are going to have an upset child. They've been through a four-hour drive, they got in at midnight, they slept in a strange bed, Dad got them up at 6 a.m. because he wants first tracks, breakfast might have been rushed.... It's not always the best start to a day."Her advice? Trust that your child will settle in, because 90 percent of the time they do. And if they don't? Make sure your resort has a communications system. At some, beepers are available for parents who are particularly concerned. All have phones accessible on the mountain, and all use the message boards at the bottom of lifts to ask parents to come back in. Most resorts, if not all, should ask you to check on your child by phone or in person a few hours into their first day."We encourage parents to check back," says Killington's Anderson. "That's not only good for the child, in case they need the parent, but it's good for the parent, too. Once they see their child settled in and happy, their ski day gets a lot better."Which is what this is all about. "The way we look at it is, if the child isn't happy, the parent isn't happy," Osterling says. "And what's the point in skiing if you don't feel happy? That's our goal: to set the mood for the whole family so they all can enjoy the mountains."Anderson agrees. "With each kid comes a whole family," he says. "We always keep that in mind." THE EXTRA MILE
It's one thing to put together a great child-care program. It's another to wow guests with innovative programs. Here are some examples:

GOOD RATIOS The State of Colorado demands that child-care facilities have an infant-to-provider ratio of 3-to-1. Crested Butte goes a step further, making it 2-to-1. "These are babies we're talking about," says Kids World Manager Ellen Osterling. "We want them to have all the comfort and care they need."

CONSTANT CONTACT Some ski resorts have used pagers for years, particularly for nursing moms. This winter, Vail offers all parents Sprint PCS phones while their children are in day-care. "Many parents have cell phones now," says Child Care Manager Nancy Nottingham, "but there are parts of the mountain where they can't pick up a tower. Ours can be used from any part of Vail."

AT LOCATION Snowbird, Utah, devotes space in the slopeside Cliff Lodge to the often unprofitable child-care center. While it maysacrifice real-estate or hotel dollars, the feel-good return is huge. Skiers at Snowbird can take on all the steeps and freshies they want without ever being more than a couple of pole pushes away at end of each run from where baby is napping.

NONINVASIVE PEEKING You want to check on your child but dread being spotted and reigniting the whole separation thing? Okemo, Vt., has video cameras, with monitors mounted just outside the day-care center (located in the main lodge) to show you just what's going on. It's the perfect way to check on junior without wreaking havoc.