There wasn't a television in sight. Kids were everywhere when Boise Weekly visited the Giraffe Laugh Early Learning Center on Boise's Grand Avenue. Some, just learning to crawl, were in the so-called "mobile room"; 1- and 2-year-olds were in a separate room learning to explore the world and one another; 2- and 3-year-olds were in a third room singing "How are you?"; and in a back, dimly lit room with Pandora's "Lullaby" station playing, newborn to 6-month-old infants were napping among mobiles of stars and teddy bears, dangling above the cribs.
Not until BW peeked into a side room did we see a TV, which looked like it hadn't seen the light of day since Big Bird was a chick.
"We have very little screen time," said Giraffe Laugh Executive Director Lori Fascilla. "Most trained providers understand that a little brain is only 20 percent developed at birth. But by the time they leave a child care program, it's 90 percent developed. When they're watching TV, that development stops."
Indeed, according to healthychildren.org, a resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers who watch more TV are "more likely to have problems paying attention at age 7," and even having the TV on in the background, even if no one is watching, "is enough to delay language development."
"We have a responsibility to our children to remove that from their environment," said Fascilla.
Still, it's a fair bet that television sets are humming throughout the nation, and the city of Boise in particular, as impressionable children learn dramatically less from a video than any human interaction.
That's all about to change. The proposed "Healthy Child Care Initiative," shepherded by Boise City Councilman TJ Thomson, includes limited screen time, more daily physical activity, healthier menus and improved training and child-to-worker ratios. The public will get a chance to weigh in on the measure--which could go into effect as early as Oct. 1--during a City Hall public hearing Tuesday, Sept. 9.
The first thing Thomson wants everyone to know is that no one will lose their child care license due to the proposed ordinance.
"If an enforcement officer finds non-compliance, no one will lose their license," Thomson told BW. "The market will drive this."
"The market" is key to the initiative's success. The city's first step will be to hire and empower a trainer who will spend the better part of the next year working with licensees, and considering that there are approximately 300 entities offering child care, that's a huge task.
Currently 130 child care centers are licensed in Boise to care for 13 or more children; 84 private homes are licensed to care for a maximum of six; and another 88 private homes are licensed to care for a maximum of 12 children.
Boise is unique in that it is the only Treasure Valley community that licenses child care facilities. The only other Idaho cities that do the same are Ammon, Chubbuck, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Falls, Lewiston, Moscow and Pocatello.
"All other cities in Ada and Canyon counties have to rely on state licensing," said Thomson. "But right now, we're doing nothing as a state to turn this ship around. If we don't do it, it's not going to happen."
And that "ship" is foundering. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Idaho ranks dead last in the nation--52nd, behind even Guam and Puerto Rico--when it comes to state rankings for healthy eating and physical activity regulations.
"We have an 'F,'" said Thomson. "We've watched childhood obesity become an epidemic--a 30 percent increase in as many years. Over half of all kids that are currently overweight were overweight by age 2. Healthy initiatives are my top priority; I've been trying to figure out the right way to approach this."
That prompted Thomson to sit down with Rebecca Lemmons, policy analyst with the Central District Health Department, and Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children, to design and set guidelines for a new child care licensing program for Boise.
They agreed that the biggest challenge for some current child care providers will be new nutritional rules, which include meeting USDA guidelines and keeping weekly menus and records of meals and snacks.
While some providers might think those guidelines translate to higher costs, Thomson said the training will be key in helping make nutritional change on a budget.
"You can almost hear someone say, 'I can get Oscar Mayer hot dogs pretty cheap in bulk.' But our training will help them to shop smarter," he said. "I honestly don't think there should be a financial impact there. It's been shown, time and again, that teaching someone how to shop is key."
But another key piece to the initiative is certain to impact cost for some child care providers, and ultimately the costs that are passed on to parents: personnel.
The current child-to-worker ratios are 6-1 for newborns to 2-year-olds, 8-1 for 2-year-olds, 10-1 for 3-year-olds, 12-1 for 4- and 5-year-olds, and 12-1 for 5-year-olds and older (the state ratio is a whopping 24-1 for 5-year-olds and older). The proposed Boise rules would shrink those ratios to 5-1 for newborns to 2-year-olds, 6-1 for 2-year-olds, 10-1 for 3- and 4-year-olds, and 12-1 for 5-year-olds and older.
"But we want to help those providers make that transition. Again, no one will lose their license over this," said Thomson.
Come Oct. 1, 2015, the city of Boise would begin publishing online audits of every child care licensee in the city so that parents can see how their provider ranks.
"I can tell you that our ratios are even better than the ones they're proposing," said Fascilla, at Giraffe Laugh. "We're a living example that lower ratios can work. We have a clear budget and we're a nonprofit. We charge accordingly. But you have to think of this as much more than just cost. It's a safety issue. Imagine, how many children can one individual cart out of a building if there's a fire?"
As for Idaho's recommended 24-1 child-to-worker ratio for children 5 years old and older, Fascilla said that's crazy.
"Every child caregiver I talked to thought that the state ratio is ridiculous," she said.
When BW asked Fascilla if she thought there would be some child care providers who wouldn't be able to survive financially under the new guidelines, she took a long breath.
"I think there are some providers who are barely hanging on as it is," she said. "I think anytime you raise standards and push yourself a bit farther, you take the chance of having additional cost. As a parent, you have to ask yourself if you would pay more for a caregiver that has better standards, menus, training and staff. Some child caregivers have business backgrounds, some don't. Maybe we can help them build a five-year plan to improve those standards over time."
Thomson envisions parents looking at the rankings in October 2015 and see that some caregivers might have one or two deficiencies.
"And then the parent gets to weigh that with how much that provider is charging," said Thomson. "Like I said, it will be up to them to decide. For some centers, this is going to be super simple."
Over at Giraffe Laugh, the monthly rate for caring for an infant, newborn to age 2 is $777. But the majority of the infants come from middle- to low-income families, which are eligible for lower rates of $621, $583 or $543 per month. Still others receive additional assistance to pay.
"I would guess that 55 to 60 percent of our families qualify for a discount," said Fascilla, who oversees the Grand Avenue Giraffe Laugh and two other locations, one on Resseguie Street and another at the Marian Pritchett School.
Then she dropped a stunning piece of news.
"As of today, we have about 400 families on our waiting list," she said. "Yes, we would love to open another location."
The need has never been greater in Boise and throughout Idaho. Thomson estimated that on any given day, there are 2,300 children in a Boise child care home or center.
And as soon as 2015, the councilman and his wife may be looking for their own child care.
"We're adopting. My wife and I started at No. 35 on a list two years ago, to adopt a child from Ethiopia and now, we're No. 2 on that list," said Thomson. "We're hoping to get a call later this year and go to Ethiopia sometime next year to bring home a child."
For now, Thomson will be facing plenty of parents and caregivers on Sept. 9, when his initiative comes before a public hearing.
"This is my baby right now," he said.