As men and women sweat and strain their way to better health and fitness at countless fitness facilities around the country, their children are elsewhere in the facility under the guidance of child care workers. Fitness facilities provide child care so that moms and dads can get their workouts in while a responsible party tends to their sons and daughters.
Technology is playing an increasing role in the child care area, especially related to security and reservations. For the peace of mind of parents as well as for bottom-line business reasons, health and fitness clubs that provide child care services must make safety and security top priorities.
"There has been increased attention to the issue of safety and security, and clubs are saying, 'What can we do to make our place safer for kids?'" says Britt-Darwin Looney, vice president of youth development services for Praesidium Inc., an Arlington, TX-based firm that provides security consulting services for clubs and other organizations.
Praesidium has identified eight elements that it says are essential for creating a safe child care environment: policies, screening and selection, training, monitoring and supervision, internal feedback systems, consumer participation, responding and administrative practices.
Technology can play a role in many of these areas. Some of the technology used to bolster child care security is as basic as creating separate spaces for child care and limiting access through the use of locked doors controlled by buzzers or bells to keep out unauthorized people.
However, some of the technology goes beyond buzzers and bells, and it includes check-in software. The software programs that many club operators use for checking in members also can be used to keep track of the children they bring to the club.
"It is important to have some type of reliable system that keeps track of who checks in and who checks out," Darwin-Looney says.
CSI Software, Houston, is just one software company that sells software for this purpose. The company's software creates a database for each child that includes important information, such as allergies or other medical issues, according to the company's website. It links a child's information with his or her parents or guardians so that only authorized adults can pick up that child, and it keeps track of the numbers of children, child care spaces and employees to make sure that children have the appropriate level of supervision.
Video monitoring has grown in popularity partially because it can help parents ease their fears about how their children are coping in their absence. At the Renaissance ClubSport facility at the Renaissance Aliso Viejo Hotel in Alisa Viejo, CA, video screens throughout the workout areas transmit images of the children who are in the Kids World child care center.
"As parents are working out in the club and passing by the video monitors, they can check the video to see that their child is safe and happy," says Christina Dort, public relations director for Leisure Sports Inc., whose clubs include Renaissance Club Sport. "I think that parents are starting to expect this kind of technology."
Video surveillance also can be used to deter inappropriate behavior, but for the deterrence to be most effective, clubs have to commit to monitoring the video.
"Knowing that a camera may be recording may stop someone with bad intent from doing something, but to be most effective as a preventative measure, someone needs to be assigned to monitoring and reviewing the video," Darwin-Looney says. "In many cases, they aren't monitored as they should be."
Video monitoring should be accompanied by periodic monitoring of a center by staff on foot, she adds. Staff members should walk the facility and take various routes to avoid predictability.
Security is critical in establishing a trusted child care program, and having a high-quality child care program is a key element in attracting and retaining members.
"It's very important," Dort says. "We get pretty rave reviews for our children's programs. Our clubs are very family friendly with lots of activities for children. Parents seem to place a huge value on having our children's programs available."
Not all technology related to the child care area is specific to safety. When it comes to ensuring children have a spot in the child care area, some clubs now offer online reservations. East Bank Club in Chicago is one such club. Members can go online to reserve space for child care. Because space is limited (a maximum of six infants and 15 older children), the program accepts reservations only two days in advance, in increments of 15 minutes. When all child care slots are taken, the system creates a waiting list, says Geni Muniz, the children's program director.
East Bank Club requires that parents be accessible while their children are in the child care area. It gives pagers to parents who request them, but in many cases, parents use their cell phones as their contact method.
Some software systems assign number tags that match the children in child care with their parents, but Muniz says the program at East Bank Club is small enough that a numbering system is not necessary.