One-third of child-care centers in low-income communities contain unsafe play equipment, half lack space for active indoor play, and a fifth suffer from poor ventilation that can make children drowsy, according to an unusual survey of the physical conditions at places where many children spend most of their waking hours.
The survey of 182 child-care centers located in communities with a high proportion of children from low-income families found chronically deficient child care, including poor acoustics that make conversation between teachers and children difficult and indoor temperatures that are too hot in summer and too cold in winter.
The study’s bottom line, said Mav Pardee, program director for the Children’s Investment Fund, is that many facilities in cities and other low-income areas must improve significantly to give children the kind of early development and learning that pays huge societal dividends as the children mature.
“High-quality child care is absolutely essential for children’s successful development and later academic success,’’ said Pardee, who planned to release the results at a press conference today. “Kids who experience high-quality child care do better in life. We all benefit.’’
The new report comes at a time of increasing attention to care for children from low-income families following the Sept. 12 death of 17-month-old Gabriel Josh-Cazir Pierre when he was left for six hours inside a sweltering van because the driver apparently overlooked him at the end of his morning child-care run in Dorchester.
Some children of two working parents or a working single parent spend a majority of their waking hours in child care - up to 10 hours a day, 52 weeks a year, and receive two-thirds of their meals there. But, until now, there have been few statewide assessments of the physical quality of the centers that serve low-income families.
Pardee’s organization, which offers financing and technical assistance to child-care centers, asked the Wellesley Center for Women and a private engineering firm to carry out the survey after members of the Children’s Investment Fund increasingly found structural problems during their visits to centers that accommodated 10 to 100 children. The survey doesn’t include thousands of smaller family child-care operations.
Researchers spent roughly half a day at each center, which were randomly selected from state-licensed day-care and early childhood education centers in relatively low-income communities. To be included, a center had to serve at least some children who receive state-subsidized care.
The researchers found that almost all centers complied with at least 80 percent of state regulatory standards and most of the violations, such as uncovered electrical outlets, could be easily remedied, Pardee said.
But, beyond minimum requirements, the researchers focused on “professional standards,’’ an amalgamation of national accreditation standards, including the state’s own recently adopted quality rating and improvement system.
Using those criteria, only half the centers measured up, the study found. Among potential health and safety hazards, the study found that 33 percent of centers statewide and 50 percent of those in Boston had play equipment and structures where children could get stuck or trapped, and that 26 percent of centers did not have screens in windows used for ventilation.
Further, the study found that 22 percent of centers have unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide, reflecting poor air circulation, and that 36 percent of centers lack mechanical ventilation over diapering and toilet areas.
The study also found a lack of classroom sinks in nearly 70 percent of centers, a likely contributing factor to the spread of infection, Pardee said. Children’s bathrooms were located too far from classrooms in 38 percent of centers statewide and 62 percent in Boston, the study found.
The study also found inadequate indoor space where young children can run around. The researchers said sedentary day care could contribute to long-term health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, and asthma.
For example, 54 percent of preschool programs statewide and 31 percent in Boston lack indoor space for slides, riding toys and other equipment that helps children develop gross motor skills. On the other hand, the study found that centers rarely exceed the 35 square feet of indoor space per child space minimum required for a state license.
“In many centers, there isn’t enough room for one child to get a book from the shelf without walking through an area where another child is playing with blocks,’’ Pardee said.
The study also found that 26 percent of centers lack acoustical tile or ceiling treatment that would make conversation easier amid the cacophony of playing children. The study found that 20 percent of preschool centers have at least one classroom without exterior windows, contributing to a lack of fresh air. At facilities for older children, about one-third have classrooms without exterior windows.
The study also found that 34 percent of centers statewide do not comply with national thermal comfort standards of 68 to 78 degrees in the winter and 74 to 82 degrees in the summer.