Any parent will tell you that finding good child care can be the difference between getting something accomplished and staying home listlessly playing another game of Apples to Apples Junior while dreaming of a stage or a StairMaster.
Even after work-hour child care is sorted out – thanks to school, professional daycare or a stay-at-home parent – someone still has to mind the little hurricanes while their attendant adults do errands or squeeze in a workout, let alone attend the occasional performance or party.
Thankfully, an increasing number of organizations are offering on-site child care, where child minders are ready and waiting for kids to be dropped off on an as-needed basis for free or on the cheap, making life easier for parents who don't have the cash (or the sitter) to participate otherwise.
It's easy to say what overworked and overcommitted parents want: safety first, plus activities their kids will enjoy, and maybe the freedom of last-minute sign-up or even drop-in privileges. The other consideration, of course, is how kids feel about it all.
Nine-year-old Emilie Ruel is a veteran of on-site child care. Her mother, Akio Maroon, is a human-rights activist and a board member of Pride Toronto. Unsurprisingly, social-justice circles like the ones they run in are at the forefront of a growing movement toward providing free child care at events.
Emilie often tags along to conferences and meetings and now has exacting standards for what it takes to make her happy and comfortable: "Good snacks, good toys and people to watch you that are into talking and playing, not just looking at their phones," she says. While Emilie reminisces warmly about conferences with workshops geared to kids, she also stresses the importance of young people having choices, just as the adults do. "Sometimes," she said, "I'm into the activity. But sometimes, I just want to sit and play Pokemon."
A long-time leader in drop-in child care is the YMCA, which charges members a small fee (typically $4 an hour a child) for children from newborn to six years old, providing care up to two-and-a-half hours at a time as long as the parent is in the building. There's also IKEA, which has a for-profit motive but a charming way of getting parents through the door to buy its inexpensive, unpronounceable essentials. The store offers an hour of free on-site child care for children ages roughly four to 10 (they are admitted by height), and with its evening hours, many young parents have taken advantage of the cheap IKEA date: enjoying a plate of tiny meatballs topped with jam in peace while their little ones frolic on the climbing structure downstairs.
Both the YMCA and IKEA have been at it long enough to have worked out some kinks. At the Y, the service is supervised by licensed early childhood educators, while IKEA has staff trained in first aid and conflict resolution (plus, of course, the ball pit). At IKEA, though, parents of children with anaphylactic allergies are routinely told that childcare staff cannot give an EpiPen or administer any other medication in an emergency. (YMCA policies vary by location.)
Universities and academic conferences are other places where on-site child care is increasingly being considered. The 10,000-member Facebook group, Academic Mamas, maintains an extensive shared Google doc of conferences that offer child care. Similarly, the group Geek Feminism keeps an online wiki of computer-science conferences and science fiction/fantasy-genre gatherings that offer children's services and programs.
Some universities are even exploring evening babysitting services to help returning students access classes more easily. Dr. Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University in New Hampshire has banded together with colleagues to offer a pilot program, and says that there's some movement among university professors to start including issues of child care in the planning of courses and program requirements.
A number of cities have child-care collectives staffed by volunteers to help parents – especially moms – take part in community organizing. These include the Montreal Childcare Collective, based at Concordia University, and the Regeneracion collective in New York, which handles child care at events held by organizations like the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Project.
Marcie Gibson, a United Church minister and parent of five from Hamilton, took advantage of the Montreal Childcare Collective when she lived in Montreal. Her children participated in childcare spaces they offered at several local community events, and Gibson appreciated the service so much that she arranged to have the collective provide childcare for events she was organizing.
"They are so thoughtful about the actual kids," Gibson says. "They asked great questions, like 'what calms your child down if they get upset?' They were also the only group that didn't require kids to be preregistered, and were able to be flexible about what they could do with the children they had based on everyone's needs."
Matthew Rice, a North Carolina biology teacher and single father of a 17-year-old with autism, has been told many times in advance that his son, Blake, would be welcome to participate in event child care at conferences and community meetings.
Upon arrival, however, he would discover staff that were completely unprepared to care for a child with special needs, and both father and son would have to leave, disappointed and further isolated from what was billed as community space. "I know it's possible," Rice said. "There are summer and after-school programs that have training and awareness enough to include Blake. But I learned fast not to rely on a drop-in."
The Regeneracion model was an inspiration for Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha when she was organizing on-site child care for Toronto events by performance collective Mangos with Chili in 2014. The setup included homemade play dough, puzzles, nut-free snacks and an "open-door policy" that allowed children to go quietly back and forth between the child-care space and the performance.
"It can't just be two young radicals with no child-care experience, a Nerf ball and a conference room," said Piepzna-Samarasinha, an artist and disability activist, from her home in Seattle. "I see connections between disabled people's access needs and the access needs of parents – and the more accessible you make the show, the more everyone can show up. If we want community, we need to reduce the barriers as much as possible."