It is never an easy decision: If you are a working parent in Northern Virginia, 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 and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number was climbing steadily.

The price is high: In Northern Virginia, working parents can expect fees of around $40 to $45 per week for a day care center; $30 to $35 for family day care, and between $100 and $140 a week for a full-time housekeeper.

Day care centers are facilities that care for 10 or more children from the age of 2 up; extended day programs offer care before and after school to school age children; Family day care homes generally provide care to five or fewer pre-school 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. The number of centers has been on the increase again in recent months, however.

"Within the last year we have been experiencing an amazing growth and proliferation of child care services," reported Judith Rosen of the Fairfax County Office for Children. "We had 73 day care centers operating last year; this fall there are 80, and by December, we are told, there will be 100."

Extended day programs are also proliferating. Fairfax County public schools, which run the programs in conjunction with the Office for Children, increased the number of programs from 11 to 15. Arlington added two programs so that 23 of their 25 elementary public schools now offer extended day programs.

Trends and Changes

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

"Many people used to look at day care as a way of getting women off welfare rolls. It wasn't considered 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 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.

Some Northern Virginia day care centers are also beginning to offer developmental programs with activities that fulfill, in a meaningful way, the state licensing requirements for developmental and educational programming.

At Reston Children's Center, for example, the daily program is 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.

"Children have different interests and a program should reflect that," said Madeline Fried, director of the Children's Center. "They also need structured and organized activity areas where they are free to move about and make choices and decisions themselves. They need the opportunity to complete what they want to complete. There's nothing better than feeling, 'I did it myself. Look at me.' That's an important part of a day care center's environment and program."

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

"The weakest link in our state licensing is that there are low educational requirements for teachers. Teachers only have to know how to read and write, but programming for young children is a skill that has to be learned. If you don't have the education and background for it, you don't know how to do it," said Rosen, whose office trains day care center teachers.

Local day care experts estimated that less than 50 percent of Northern Virginia day care centers have good, meaningful developmental programs that meet the spirit as well as letter of state licensing requirements.

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 covering subjects such as discipline, how to communicate with the day care center, and reasonable expectations for young children.

"Close work with parents is primary. A center can't provide good care without that," Fried said.

In Fairfax, the Office for Children provides these seminars free of charge to any day care center whose parents request such lectures or talks.

Judith Rosen reports that the seminars have been successful.

"There is usually a good turn out for them. We share and discuss the difficulties of being parents and how they can provide good parenting within their time, financial and logistical limitations.

Choosing a Child Care Facilty

There is no perfect type of care. There are tradeoffs in any type of care a parent chooses. A housekeeper, for instance, comes in and provides care 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 the ages of 3 and 5.

There is plenty of socialization at day care centers and family day care homes, but the parent has less control over the environment 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. The Fairfax Office for Children, 691-3175, and the Arlington Child Care Office, 558-2969, publish detailed booklets on what to look for at a day care center or damily day care home.

In order to operate in Northern Virginia, a day care center must be licensed by the state Department of Welfare, which investigates safety of the facility, the ratio of staff to children, and the background and training of personnel. The licensing requirements are minimal. Staff-to-children ratios are not as stringent as federal guidelines and educational and background requirements for teachers and aides are minimal. A teacher in a day care center, for instance, need only have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Arlington County, which is the only jurisdiction in Northern Virginia to do so, also licenses its day care centers and has stricter requirements in regard to staff training and education, adult-to-child ratios and program planning.

Day care centers that agree to accept children eligible for federally subsidized day care must meet federal guidelines. The staff-to-children ratios are stricter under federal guidelines but there is a moratorium on staff-to-child ratios while the Department of Health, Education and Welfare reevaluates and rewrites day care standards.

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

"We want the public to be very involved in the preliminary, 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 November and December. Proposed regulations will follow in the spring. Final regulations, Empson predicted, will be ready by next fall.

"Centers must meet certain requirements to be licensed, but that's no guarantee of safe or food 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 day care centers, extended day programs and family day care providers in Fairfax, call the Office for Children, 691-3175.

In Arlington, call the Child Care Office, 558-2969, for day care centers and family day care providers. Call Pat Rowlands at Arlington public schools, 558-2884, for a list of extended day care programs or contact your home school.

In Alexandria, day care coordinator Jane Ingrist, 549-7707, has lists of any care centers and other programs in Alexandria.

In addition, the regional office of the state Department of Welfare maintains a list of licensed day care centers in Northern Virginia, 241-1880.

Federal subsidies, administered by the state, are available for parents who meet income requirements. Families earning 50 percent of less of Virginia's median income are eligible for full payment of day care or family day care. The median income for a family of four is presently $17,955.

Fairfax and Arlington have subsidy programs on a sliding scale for parents whose incomes are above the federal level but who can demonstrate financial need. In Fairfax, for instance, parents with adjusted incomes of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] qualify for partial assistance. Adjusted incomes take into account the number of children in the family, outstanding medical bills and babysitting expenses.

Parents wanting more information on subsidized care should call, in Fairfax, Office for Children, 691-3175, in Arlington, Child Care Office, 558-2969, and in Alexandria, Department of Social Services, 549-7707.