The side doors of Columbia Baptist Church swing open at 7:30 each weekday morning, and a parade of parents and preschoolers files in on its way to day care.

Until 8:30, when their teachers arrive, the children are free to play in two brightly lit rooms filled with Tinker Toys, blocks, a slide and seesaw. Clustered around one table, three-and four-year-old girls are absorbed in drawing pictures of hearts. Brian explains to the boys at his table that he wants to be Darth Vader next Halloween. And Sarah, two-and-a-half, one of the youngest children Columbia accepts into day care, is quiet and sticks close to the adults.

Janice Engels, the church’s director of children’s ministries and day care overseer, emphasizes individual care and loving concern. “We try very hard to create a family atmosphere,” she said, where the children feel they are “back with their brothers and sisters” when they arrive each morning.

According to child-care experts, local churches—like Columbia in Falls Church, Virginia—are the leading providers of day care. Amy Wilkins of the Children’s Defense Fund says there are 18,000 church-based centers, about half of which operate as church ministries. The others, she said, are run by outsiders using church facilities.

Many, like Columbia, are licensed only to care for children past infancy (over two years of age). Yet the fastest-growing segment of America’s work force consists of mothers with children under three years of age. In 1970, 24 percent of the mothers of infants worked outside the home. By 1984, that number had reached 46 percent. Infants as young as three weeks old are spending a large portion of their lives cared for by someone other than ...

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