Make an appointment Dropping in unannounced may seem clever, but it's not the best strategy for a first visit. Instead, schedule it with the director. "You want her to be able to spend time with you and to focus on any concerns," says Faith Wohl, president of the Child Care Action Campaign. You can ask the director whether it would be okay at some later time to stop by at random. If she hesitates, that might be a sign to look elsewhere, says Wohl.
Go solo Bringing your child along may distract you from listening and observing. You can arrange a follow-up trip for her to meet the teachers and the other kids.
Avoid crunch times For the initial tour, go after the kids have settled in (typically in the late morning) and spend at least an hour long enough to see the caregivers shift the kids from one activity to another.
Pay attention to the teachers Notice how they speak to the children. Do they raise their voices? How do they calm a crying child? "If you're not comfortable with a teacher's conduct, ask the director if this is typical behavior for that teacher," says Wohl.
Look at the layout There should be separate rooms for each age group, cushioned areas for play, and plenty of stimulating toys.
And don't forget to follow your nose: A dirty-diaper smell is to be expected near the infant or the toddler area. But if the odor lingers or wafts through the entire facility, it's a red flag that hygiene isn't a top priority.