Family, friends and neighbors who care for young children

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I love my grandchildren, and I don’t want them to be here, there, and over there. So, that’s what I do—take care of them.” –Caregiver, Focus Group Participant

“What do I enjoy about taking care of children? In my case, it’s learning. Learning something nice, because you end up falling in love with them as well. And you get to learn how they are. And the kids grow to love you as well.” –Caregiver, Focus Group Participant 


In California, 80% of children under age 2 and 40% of children under age 5 are cared for by friends, grandparents, other family members, and neighbors. These adults play a valuable role in the lives of young children. They dearly love the children they watch, they provide safety and security, they give comfort and peace of mind to working parents, and they are often parents themselves with deep experience with children.

The experiences of very young children have a profound impact on their growth and development. Providing quality early learning experiences is key to long-term success, not only in school, but with a whole host of life outcomes. That’s why many organizations are working across California to reach these people, to decrease isolation and support caregivers through responsive programming and much-needed resources.  

With support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the research and messaging teams at Goodwin Simon Strategic Research and Wonder: Strategies for Good led an audience research project to better understand how to communicate effectively with the family, friends and neighbors who care for young children. We began by interviewing program staff from many organizations. They told us about the challenges of reaching the friends, grandparents, other family members and neighbors who care for young children.

“We know that there are many more people who take care of kids that we are not reaching,” said Alejandra Gonzalez Reyes of Visión y Compromiso, Jethro Rice of Bananas, and Jerri Stewart of the Child Care Resource Center, all of whom work for organizations supporting family, friends and neighbors who care for young children. They also served as advisors to A Labor of Love. “We’ve all had the experience of building a program we know is strong only to have lower-than-desired attendance.”

This Heartwired research was focused on providing organizations and advocates in California with resources and recommendations to effectively communicate with the people who watch and care for young children in California outside of formal childcare settings. 

Heartwired Insight and Strategy

We designed a series of focus groups to learn more about family, friends and neighbors who care for young children in California—the people that organizations are working to better reach and engage. These focus groups were conducted among women in three different locations in California (Fremont, Downey and Fresno), with one group in English and one group in Spanish in each of the three cities. All focus group participants care for young children in informal settings.  

In a landscape review of existing outreach strategies, we learned that outreach messaging often leads with kids’ needs, highlighting the benefits of play or children’s social interaction. 

Organizations do not as frequently lead with adult motivations. In our focus groups, we learned that many who care for young children do so, in part, based on a desire to give back. Many are parents and recall moments when others provided love and support to their children. Today, they are paying forward those past acts of love and kindness. Those motivations are missing from outreach materials. 

We also learned that organizations often revert to short-hand language to identify those who watch children, even while they understand that these short-hand references can be confusing. Most often, labels like “FFN” (friends, family and neighbors) and “caregiver” are used without context. Organizations reported that they don’t know how friends, family members and neighbors who care for children think of or refer to themselves. 

We tested materials, including the example below, that highlighted the motivations of those who care for young children and reflected their various identities — including tías and grandmas and babysitters and proveedores.  

Karen’s Experience:

Karen is happy to help her neighbor who works afternoons and evenings. A few days each week, she watches her neighbor’s kids (ages three and five) while she takes care of her own three-year-old son, Nelson. But finding free activities that work for all of the kids can be tough!

“It’s not easy to find free activities that work for all three of the kids, so I was so happy to learn about Connections from a friend at the playground.”

Karen likes the support she gets at Connections. She talks with other women about dealing with hard issues and she gets ideas for activities to do at home that keep kids off screens and doing things that will prepare them for school. Read more about Karen and her story here. 


We learned that there was a hunger for programs like this — once the grandmas, aunties, best friends, and neighbors who care for young children saw themselves reflected in the outreach materials. One focus group participant had this to say after reviewing an outreach brochure that we refined based on learnings: 

“My view changed somewhat regarding the workshops that exist for caregivers. Because I thought that we were alone, honestly, and that it was just us, as far as our knowledge or how we take care of our children. But now we do see that there is help and support, and we can look for these, obtain more information and look for these resources.” 

Our research advisors also learned about how they might communicate differently about their programs. 

“Through the research we learned more about the motivations that drive community members to take care of children, the pride they feel about the role they play in helping children learn and grow, and the deep love they feel for the children in their lives. We also learned that the way we communicate with caregivers does not always match their motivations and needs. The findings have helped us to think differently about how we communicate with those who watch young children and how we engage them in our programming.” —Alejandra Gonzalez Reyes of Visión y Compromiso, Jethro Rice of Bananas, and Jerri Stewart of the Child Care Resource Center

Given the large number of young children who are cared for by family, friends and neighbors, programming designed to support informal childcare providers is critical to ensuring all of California’s children enter kindergarten ready to thrive. Fortunately, as this project demonstrates, there is a desire in our community for playgroups, workshops and other supportive programming. By paying thoughtful attention to the motivations and decision-making processes of adults, it is possible to more effectively outreach to these key groups of people.

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