Serina Asher, just shy of her second birthday, ran giggling and big-eyed from toy to toy, taking little time to gape at the Victorian villagescape or the 34-foot-high skylight at the center of Creme de la Creme, a new preschool and day-care center in Sterling.
Serina ignored the bamboo fence and big-screen television in the school's Coconut Theater and instead twirled around and around a standard wooden support beam. It's the classic case of a child less enchanted by the gift than the box it came in.
"She gets that there's a fountain here, but the aesthetics are more appealing to us than to her," said her mother, Sapana.
Creme's aesthetics are extensive: a wooden bridge leading over a babbling brook filled with Koi fish; an outdoor tot-friendly water park; KREM-TV, closed-circuit television produced by children enrolled in preschool or after-school care; Victoria's Shortcuts, complete with miniature salon chair where Creme brings in a hairstylist by appointment.
There's more: the Trike Garage and Autobahn, for young speedsters on tricycles; a spotless library that Creme calls the Bibliotheque; infant rooms with rows of cribs and easy rocking chairs for babies as young as six weeks; an elaborate security system that includes 30 cameras and a bank of monitors in the lobby where parents can watch their children play.
The 21,000-square-foot facility is only part of what makes Creme de la Creme, which operates six centers in four cities, unique, said President and CEO Bruce Karpas. The private, for-profit preschool also focuses on early education, employing a full-time curriculum chief and moving children as young as 2 from room to room throughout the day while they take classes such as math, computers and Spanish.
"Parents realize that this is not day care," he said. "This is socialization, and this is education."
The Sterling center, which held an open house on Saturday and will open for children on Monday, is the company's first in the Washington region. Karpas said Creme is looking elsewhere in the region, including Bethesda and Potomac, but said Loudoun's fast-growing population of affluent young parents made it a logical choice.
"We were looking not only at where the parents are today but where the parents will be tomorrow," Karpas said. "We take a long-term view of our school. It's not a restaurant, and it's not an office park."
Creme has done little advertising here, but word of mouth spread quickly, and several hundred people came to the open house. Karpas said the center, which can accommodate 286 children, has filled many of its spaces but has room in some classes.
Prices vary according to age. All-day kindergarten costs $1,000 a month. Preschool for 3- to 4-year olds, for a half-day, three days a week, costs $525 a month. Most expensive is five-day-a-week care for babies 6 weeks to 16 months, at $1,350 a month.
Karpas said Creme's prices have been carefully researched to be above, but not excessively above, other day-care options in the Sterling area. He rejects the terms "high-end" or "elite" that have been applied to Creme.
Instead, he said, the center is for "lucky children," and he launches into a story about a police officer who said he found the money to send his child to the center by bringing lunch to work each day, instead of eating out.
"It's for very lucky children, but lucky children cuts across all sorts of children," Karpas said.
Parents touring the center Saturday said they were ready to pay extra for Creme's perks.
"This eases the pain of going back to work," said Aimee Bechtle, 31, who returns to her job as a software engineer on Jan. 6, the same day that Will, 4, and Tommy, 2, start at Creme de la Creme.
Jay Asher, Serina's father, listed his family's options for child care -- he or Sapana could quit their jobs, and the family would take a dramatic income loss; they could employ a nanny, likely too expensive; they could enroll Serina in an average day care situation, where she would likely stay in one room all day and could become bored; or they could try Creme.
"She's going to be away from us for eight to nine hours a day," he mother said. "We'd rather she be learning a lot during that time."
Lisa and Curtis Beckett have placed their first child, not due until April, on the waiting list. The couple said quality child care for infants is even harder to find than for toddlers. She told of walking into one day-care place, with tile floor and hospital smell, and almost bursting into tears. "I just thought, I can't leave my baby here!" she said.
Parents discussed whether the center's constant stimulation could spoil their kids or make them easily bored at home.
"Some of my co-workers said now you'll have to send him to private school, he won't be happy at a public school," said Jennifer Greenfield, touring with 18-month-old Tyler. "I just don't think that's true. Kids just don't recognize that kind of stuff."