It's not yet 9 a.m., but Lana, Derek, Kelly, and Alana all have their shoes off and are working the swings, the slide, and the monkey bars. Even without taking off my sneakers, I find it hard to keep pace. Hannah calls to be pushed on the swings. Alex isn't crawling through the playground tunnel — he's on top of it, quacking like a duck.
The only thing better than being an adult at SAS is being a kid. The adults at SAS get free M&Ms and Diet Coke, but they don't get Play-Doh, a sandbox, or circle time. The adults have a great gym, but for us kids, there are place cards laid out for lunch, there are cots at nap time, and often there's someone to rub small circles on your back while you doze.
I spent a sunny Thursday under the watchful eye of Sheryl Wolfe, 38, and Liz Sanchez, 31, in a classroom full of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds at SAS's on-campus day-care center. I tested myself on the balance beam, I got to use cookie cutters on Play-Doh, and I discovered that when kids today play with Matchbox cars, they roll out an entire city of roads and buildings, printed on a plastic mat.
Quality day care — the goal of all working parents — is becoming more common, and on-site day care is slowly evolving from a perk into a productivity tool. But SAS day care is in a league of its own.
Wolfe and Sanchez have 24 years of child-care experience between them. The third member of their team — Dawn Mouradi, 34, who is absent today — brings the experience level in this classroom to 33 years. The three have been team-teaching at SAS for 8 years. Wolfe and Sanchez are Montessori-certified, and the classrooms are set up Montessori-style, with various project areas for us kids to work in throughout the day.
Every classroom has a bathroom, a child-height sink, a telephone (it's turned off during nap time), voice mail, a computer, and a wall of windows, which open the classroom to a shower of light.
Emily Paynter, 51, an educational consultant, is here today. Fitting in just as naturally as Sheryl or Liz, she works with kids who have developmental or adjustment problems. "I'm just part of what's going on," she says. "If we see something serious, we make a referral to an outside counselor." A speech therapist comes a couple times a week. A French teacher comes three times a week.
For all of this, SAS parents pay $250 a month. Child care is in such high demand that it is the only benefit for which SASers have to qualify. They have to work at SAS for a year, and even then, there is often a waiting list to get in.
What I like best about SAS day care is how respectful everyone is of us kids. The word "no" is almost never uttered, voices are never raised (except by kids, using "outside" voices), and yet there is a massive amount of play, plenty of experimentation, and a lot of brow-crinkling concentration.
Before lunch, Brandon, working at the sink, discovers how to make green by mixing blue and yellow food coloring. Sanchez is watching Brandon out of the corner of her eye — the kids know the rules about cleaning up after they work with water — but she's really working with Tara, who has a number board out. The board is covered with tiles, and Tara is putting them in order from 1 to 50.
Lunch is served in a spacious multipurpose room, with about seven kids and one teacher to each table. Places are set in advance. The plates are china, the glasses are glass, the forks and knives are stainless steel. The food is doled out family-style, with each child taking what he or she wants and passing the serving dish along.
"Is everyone finished serving?" Wolfe asks, surveying the table. "Okay, you may start."
Lunchtime is almost serene: People ask for what they need, and others calmly pass it to them. After eating, each child clears his or her own dishes. Then it's nap time, after which kids scatter to work on projects of their own choosing. Laura and Kristina sit in the book area and read. Sanchez asks Colin if he'll wash the door ("Yes!" he responds, before racing off to find a spray bottle). Neal and Elizabeth haul a bag stuffed with cot sheets to the laundry.
Parents start picking up their kids at about 4 p.m., and by 5 p.m., dismissal is in full swing. Outside, the staff helps to strap kids into car seats in order to keep the minivans moving efficiently.
Give people the chance to explore, to follow their intellectual curiosity, to take a break for some physical activity, to set their own schedule, to team up with others informally, to be lightly but intelligently managed, to have plenty of snacks throughout the day — that's the philosophy of SAS day care. Given all of that, being in day care at SAS is really not that different than being employed at SAS.
Which may be Jim Goodnight's ultimate management insight.
A version of this article appeared in the January 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.