Day Care vs. Pre-Schools


One of the most frustrating things about shopping for daytime care for young children is sorting through your options. Not all centers are created equal, which makes it difficult to compare them side by side, and there’s a lot more to consider than the price tag. You have to think about location, amenities, reputation, programming, and the caregivers’ background, as well as, how all these relate to the specific developmental needs of your own children.

Today, we’d like to help with one part of your search. You might have noticed that some centers call themselves day care facilities, while others call themselves pre-schools. Let’s demystify that distinction a bit:

  • Day care centers focus on custodial care, while pre-schools are focused on pre-elementary education. That means pre-schools go beyond the basics of meals and playtime and train their caregivers to provide age-appropriate activities that cultivate new learning every day.
  • Day care centers structure their days around parents’ working schedules, while pre-schools structure their days around the school year. While both offer reprieve for working parents during their office hours, pre-schools generally place greater emphasis on making sure each day reinforces previous learning while adding to new learning. So while a day care center’s schedule is likely to be organized in “standalone” units that look much the same week to week, a pre-school’s schedule will be structured in longer increments that more closely resemble a typical school calendar.
  • Day care centers usually serve children ages 6 months and up, while pre-schools are typically geared more specifically toward the 3-5 year age range. Pre-schools aim to prepare children to enter elementary school with a good head start, so they may or may not offer basic nursery services for younger children.
  • Day care centers rarely use a formal curriculum; pre-schools do. Pre-schools are very deliberate about the educational goals they set for children, and they use time-tested and developmentally appropriate methods to help children reach those goals. For this reason, they tend to attract staff with genuine interest in child pedagogy and not in child care.

It might be helpful to think of day care as structured babysitting and of pre-school as age-appropriate education. But remember, many quality day care centers operate like pre-schools, even if they don’t call themselves by that name. Both must meet similar licensing requirements, and both are subject to routine regulatory oversight. A quality day care and a quality pre-school often cost about the same; but for those with specific educational objectives for their children, pre-schools may offer more value for the money.