It is never an easy decision: If you are a working parent in the District, do you hire a housekeeper so that your child can remain in the warmth and comfort of home? Or, do you choose a family day care home, day care center, or extended day program where your child can enjoy new friends and experiences?

For some families, the decision goes even deeper.A mother may work or not work depending on the quality of child care available.

As of March 1978 nearly 44 percent of American women with children under the age of 6 were working. In the District, nearly 60 percent of all mothers were working, and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number was climbing steadily.

The cost to working mothers and their families is high: In Washington they can expect fees of between $35 and $45 per week at a day care center, $25 to $35 for family day care; between $100 and $140 a week for a full-time housekeeper.

day care centers are facilities that care for six or more children; extended day programs offer care before and after school to school age children; family day care homes generally provide care to five or fewer children at a time in private homes.

While day care centers enjoyed a period of accelerated growth in the 1960s, the boom tapered off in the 1970s. Within the last year, however, the District's Department of Human Resources licensed six new day care centers. In addition several existing day care centers added infant centers and others started befoer and after school programs. The Department of Recreation also runs 12 before and after achool centers capable of caring for 720 children.

Trends and changes

As the clientele and need for day care grows, the approach of day care centers to staffing, programming and environment is changing.

"Many people used to look at day care as a way of getting women off welfare rolls; they hadn't considered it a serious, educational program for children, but that's changing now," said Diane Trister Dodge, a day care specialist with Creative learning, a child care and teacher training consulting firm. "if the new federal standards being proposed by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare are accepted, there will be even more emphasis on quality programming."

Dodge said that, along with an educational component, day care operators are beginning to provide programs that recognize individual and cultural differences. "Their programs reflect that we are a multicultural country. Puzzles, decor, songs and activities reflect the cultural backgrounds of the children," she said.

At the Roots Activity Learning Center, 6222 N. Capitol St. NW, for instance, black history and African cultural awareness are emphasized by pictures of Africa and portraits of black women. The songs and stories the children hear and sing are about Afica.

Day care centers have been developing enriched educational programs with activities that go beyond city licensing requirements.

The daily program at these centers in much like that of an educationally oriented nursery school. There are small and large group activities, and open play areas, supervised by teachers, where children can play with sand, paint pictures, build with blocks, feed animals, care for garden plants, play at the playground, or work with wood and carpentry tools.

Such a program, say day care specialists, is a far ery from the depressing type of center where children watch television or color in coloring books most of the day.

How many centers have developed such enriched programs is hard to say. None of the District licensing specialists who are familiar with the centers would hazard a guess.

"If they're licensed they're providing adequate educational, physical, social and emotional care or they wouldn't be licensed," said Robert Sauls of the Licensing Department. "Several go over and beyond that but I couldn't say how many."

Day care centers are also beginning to lean toward a home-like rather than school-like atmosphere. Some centers are providing soft areas such as couches, chairs and pillows where children can relax and intimate nooks or corners so that children can escape from the group atmosphere.

Another important trend is towards a family centered approach. Several centers now offer parent education seminars or courses that cover subjects such as discipline, how to communicate with the day care center, and reasonable expectations for young children.

With some day care centers finding the parents of their children are hardly more than children themselves, seminars are being tailored to meet the needs of teenage parents.

Choosing a Child Care Facility

There is no one perfect choice. There are tradeoffs in any type of care a parent chooses. A housekeeper, for instance, comes in and provides service whether a child is sick or well, but the child is usually isolated from other children and does not have an opportunity to socialize, an important factor for children between ages of 3 and 5.

There is plenty of socialization at a day care center or family day care home, but the parent has less control over the enviroment and, should the child become ill, the parent will have to find alternative care.

Whatever type of care you choose, specialists strongly advise you to visit a facility before sending your child there.

To operate in the District, a day care center must be licensed by the Department of Human Resources which investigates the safety of the facility, the ratio of staff to childreN> and the background and training of personnel. The licensing reqirements, which are minimal but are toughter than those of Maryland of Virginia, call for a ratio of adults to children that starts at 1-to-4 for 2-year-olds and goes up to 1-to15 for 5- through 14-year-olds. Day care teachers must have bachelor's degrees or, if they have high school diplomas and have had three years experience as day care teachers, they have a period of grace to earn college credits in early childhood education.

Day care centers that agree to accept children who are eligible for federally susidized day care must meet federal guidelines. The staff-to-children ratios are stricter under federal guidelines but there is a moratorium on staff-child ratios while HEW reevaluates and rewrites day care standards.

These new standards were supposed to be available last October, but the process of revamping is just getting underway. A paper presenting the thinking of HEW's Human Development Service on day care regulation issues will be published in the Federal Register in the fall.

"We want the public to be very involved in the developmental stages of these regulations," said Walter Empson who is working on an HDS team developing the regulations.

Regional hearings on the paper will be held in late November and December. Proposed regulations should be available by spring and officials hope the final regulations will be ready next fall, Empson said.

"Centers must meet certain requirements to be licensed, but that's no guarantee of safe or good care. Parents should always visit a facility with their child before making a decision." said Dodge.

"Check on the orderliness of the room," she continued. "Do the puzzles have all their pieces? Is there a place for everything? Is the room set up in sections? Are the children running around the room in a wild way or are they busy at various activities? Are the teachers talking together or working with the children?"

For a list of licensed day care centers call DHR's Department of Licensing and Certification, 727-0663. For information on the Department of Recreation's before and after school program, call 576-7132. The District does not publish a guide on how to choose a day care facility, but Day Care and Child Development Council, 622 14th Street, NW, 2005 (638-2316) publishes "Checking out Child Care" (75 cents).

Federal subsidies, administered by the District's Department of Human Resources are available for parents meeting income requirements. A family of three - a parent and two children - would be eligible as of Oct. 1 for all or partial subisdy if the family income is $12,282 or less. A parent of two children who earned the maximum amount would pay 20 percent of the daily child care costs. The DHR maximum daily rate for coverage is $8 per day.

Parents who want more information on subsidized care should call the day care branch of the Social Rehabilitation Administration, 727-0650.