If you’ve only heard of the Ontario Early Years Centres in passing, and the first image that comes to mind is a flu-infested community centre with no heat, allow me to change your perception.
I won’t say that I avoided the Centres during my first mat leave, but I didn’t free up any time to check them out and I didn’t enthusiastically say to my other mom-friends that “we should totally meet up there!” No. I had visions of poorly-lit, underfunded rental spaces with dirty, broken toys. Why? Because it’s government-funded and free. Perhaps I have a few preconceived notions about what – other than mostly-free health care – our government provides that’s worthwhile.
But when my Mom started babysitting The K Man when I went back to work, and I wanted to ensure he was getting adequate socialization with other kids, I encouraged her to take him to our neighbourhood Ontario Early Years Centre in the west end of Toronto (and asked her to report back on its cleanliness). She raved. And the little guy had a blast. They went at least once a week while we lived in the city.
Finally, I decided to give it a whirl.
It was bright, clean, spacious and well-staffed. They had oodles of (very clean) toys, dress-up costumes and distinct play areas where kids can pretend to type on a computer and talk on the phone, play homemaker in a mini-kitchen, ride in cars, rock on boats with a friend or just sit and colour. Staffers interacted and engaged with moms, caregivers and kids as much or as little as we wanted. There were organized activities, like song-time, that we were welcome to join. Or, in our case – not. (Note: The K Man Never. Stops. Moving.)
Unlike at our house, where we try to keep certain toys on each floor, here the kids can freely cart things from one end of the place to the other. My guy has a penchant for simply emptying a bucket of whatever-it-is and moving on to the next thing. I am forever looking for MegaBlocks or puzzle pieces under furniture. Not at the Early Years Centre! While the staff asks the kids to partake in clean-up, the process is obviously far different than at home: there are numerous helping hands at the centre and no dark corners where small parts avoid detection.
When we moved to the ‘burbs, we were bummed to no longer be within walking distance of a Centre; and the one we can drive to certainly isn’t open all day from Monday to Saturday like the one we frequented in Toronto. However, we’ve made it there a few times in the last couple years of living here and it’s a pretty good space and program.
Like any organized activity (Kindermusik included), the program is only as good as its instructors. Some days – or in specific locations – you may luck out with an awesome staffer who’s really into kids and knows what makes them tick. Other days, you may merely get a warm body.
So…where can you find them?
- A complete list of locations across Ontario