Welcome to Happy Happy Daycare Center, where your child will have all the fun they could ask for while Mom and Dad are at work. Yes, indeed, we are going to have a happy happy day here. At least until the parents are out of sight.
This is a broader version of our various babysitter tropes. Except instead of a single person or family, we now have an entire facility.
Many times when a daycare center appears in a work of fiction, it is the furthest thing from a happy, fun place. It's often a place of misery, of torment, of... nightmares. Of course, whether it's the kids or the adults working at the daycare who are having the nightmare depends entirely on the work itself. The point is someone is not having a good time.
If it's the kids, you can expect the place to be a kiddie version of a prison, where the employees act (and sometimes look) like prison guards. They'll punish kids for even the tiniest of infractions (like "having fun"), or sometimes even worse. Other works may have employees who actually seem nice and friendly, but are maybe a little too nice. These employees will treat all the children, regardless of age, like little kids. In this case they will use excessive "baby talk" when addressing the kids, sing all kinds of cheesy, terrible, overly happy songs, and always wear an ultra-creepy smile on their face. In cases like this, the younger children may not mind so much, but older kids will absolutely HATE it. But in darker stories, the staff might even be physically abusive and the parents will be horrified because they are entrusting the safety and well being of their children to the staff, only to find out that their children are being abused.
If it's the adults, however, then you can expect the building to be filled with wild, hyperactive, screaming children. The kids will push the hapless employees to the very limits of their sanity. It will not be uncommon to see one or more of the adults wearing a cast on an injured body part (neck braces are popular here). Just like the kids example above, it is possible for more well-behaved children (especially older ones) to join the employees in feeling miserable here.
Needless to say this can be Truth in Television. Any combination of poor management, unmotivated or unskilled low-paid staff, poor facilities, a sketchy company, etc. can lead to this. One challenge with ensuring quality at daycare centers is the purchaser of the service (the parents) are not present while the service is rendered, and the recipient is a baby or young child, so they cannot provide reliable information on the daycare's quality of service. For this reason, some policy analysts suggest that daycare (like elder care) is best provided by the non-profit sector.
Whoever is having the bad time, expect great relief when the parents return, and dread knowing that tomorrow it will be the same thing all over again.
- Litteul Kevin: One episode had Kevin's father realize he was in over his head dealing with Kevin's friends, so he called up his buddies from the security agency/biker's club. The end shows that they've tied up the kids and gagged them to maintain some kind of order.
- Toy Story 3. An odd example, since it's not a nightmare for any humans involved. Andy is now 17 and heading for college. He tries to put his old toys in the attic for storage, since they have a lot of sentimental value for him. But a mix-up during cleaning gets them donated to Sunnyside Daycare by accident. At first it seems like a dream come true for the toys, since any time the kids get older, newer and younger children will simply come in to replace them. However, it isn't long before the they learn Lots-O-Huggin Bear runs the daycare and rules over the other toys like a dictator. He forces the new arrivals into the "Caterpillar" room, where the children are all toddlers who are too young to know how to play with those particular toys. They break real fast. And any time a toy tries to either escape the facility or move themselves to the "Butterfly" room where the older, more well-behaved children are, Lots-O's guards will grab them and imprison them until the next morning when the kids return.
- In The Pursuit of Happyness, Gardner has to leave his son at a daycare while he desperately tries to make ends meet for his family. However, he becomes increasingly displeased with the service because the children seem to receive no education at all, have to watch TV the whole day, and a mural outside the daycare spells "Happyness" rather than "Happiness".
- Adam Ruins Everything says that this trope is part of the reason for The '80s' panic over Satanism, saying that since daycares were a relatively new innovation at the time, and because the traditional Nuclear Family had changed thanks to more and more women going into the workforce (and staying in it even after marriage and babies, something that many people did not approve of at that time) people were more than willing to believe that they were engaging in Satanic child sacrifice/sex rituals. Police interviewed witnesses, interviewed frightened children, and even manipulated those kids into confirming those rumors, leading to many daycare owners (who, of course, had not engaged in any of those atrocities) losing their jobs and being thrown in Prison.
- Uncle Duke from Garry Trudeau's strip Doonesbury operated the "Nuthin' But Orphans" daycare center in Aspen, Colorado. State inspectors cited him for numerous deficiencies, but "plenty of duct tape, though."
- Kindergarten: The eponymous kindergarten is a Black Comedy version of this, complete with a bloodthirsty janitor, apathetic teacher, Trigger-Happy principal, and some kind of demonic being living beneath the sandpit.
- Five Nights at Freddy's: Security Breach: The daycare appears to be perfectly fun at first, but the nightmare comes in the form of the Daycare Attendant. Sun is much too eager to play and doesn't seem to understand how grabbing and forcefully restraining a child could upset them. Moon, meanwhile, is an overly-antagonistic jerk who traumatizes children who stay up past their bedtime.
- The main setting of the first three seasons of Smosh Babies is a run-down daycare center owned by the appropriately-named Mrs. Buttz. Half the time, she is apathetic towards the children of her clients, and the other half the time, she and her dog, Bark-Bark, enforce physical violence on them. In the first season, the playground's rusted-up and guarded by a trio of three-year-old bullies, and in the second season, it's replaced by a parking lot for old people note . The Daycare's certificate of authenticity is revealed to be expired, and on top of all that, the daycare apparently doesn't have a diaper service, as there is a shed near it that has the sole purpose of storing soiled diapers.
- The Creepypasta story Happy Sun Daycare centers around one of these. The narrator, a reporter for an online news site, decides to do an investigation on the titular daycare, which had closed years prior to when the story begins. Throughout the story, he finds out that people heard strange noises and children were found with mysterious injuries. He then learns that particularly unruly children were sent to the "Gray Door" room and trapped inside with a vicious dog as punishment. After heading to the abandoned daycare and investigating the aforementioned "Gray Door" room, he comes to the horrifying realization that it wasn't a dog that was used to terrorize the children, but the janitor, who happens to be a werewolf completely unaware of the horror he caused.
- Rugrats (1991) had a couple of episodes centered around this.
- One episode, "The Big House", had Tommy dropped off at a daycare where the staff acted like prison guards and proudly proclaimed to the parents that there had never been an escape. Tommy and the other babies try to do just that until the parents just happen to show up at the moment they were about to break out.
- Subverted in another episode, "Dayscare", where Chuckie and Kimi are sent to another daycare center. This one is shown to be a very cool and fun place. But Chuckie, being the shy, paranoid, easily frightened little boy he is, still spends the whole episode expecting something bad to happen until his sister finally convinces him to chill out... literally, because they're having ice cream!
- The Simpsons holds multiple examples, all used on plots regarding Maggie:
- The episode "A Streetcar Named Marge" showcases a daycare center that's run like The Alcatraz (and to take things further, it's named after Ayn Rand) that locks pacifiers away to force children to stop depending on them. The whole sub-plot with Maggie then runs like a parody of The Great Escape.
- The Three Shorts episode "Four Great Women And A Manicure" goes further with the Randian psychology by making the whole Maggie plot/short a parody of The Fountainhead, having Maggie battling a daycare center principal that enforces conformism amongst all children (to "train them" for lives where they're all the same... that is, mediocre and accepting of it) and thus sees Maggie's artistic aspirations as a threat.
- The episode "Eeny Teeny Maya Moe" has Homer using a daycare center that's just opened right next to Moe's Bar to leave Maggie while he gets drunk. It turns out that the kids in the center are all hyper-territorial bullies that gang up on Maggie, and none of the adults in the center (or the Simpsons, at least at first) notice this.
- In one episode of Family Guy, Stewie is in a run-from-home daycare center where the caretaker, Miss Emily, just doesn't care. When Brian sees how terrible the place is (complete with dead kid), he goes to confront her and find out that she's hot. Then he doesn't want to help, hoping to have sex with her instead. He does eventually have her arrested, but only after he finds out that she already has a boyfriend. An earlier episode has Stewie mentioning something about a daycare where the teacher hits the kids.
- A couple of episodes of Adventure Time have the Candy Kingdom Preschool, where the kids run riot because the elderly Candy Nanny has dementia and no limbs.