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What is preschool?
Preschool is usually geared to children from about age 3 to 5 – those who have moved beyond toddlerhood but aren't yet old enough for kindergarten. A good preschool program might emphasize the ways it promotes your child's development, including laying the groundwork for a solid start in kindergarten. Many embrace specific teaching philosophies.
How is preschool different from daycare?
Preschools typically provide care for shorter hours and are closed for holidays, school breaks, and summer, though some may offer full-time programs, extended care, and summer options. Preschools must be licensed, and most teachers have some training in early childhood education.
Daycare centers can be a more convenient choice for working parents because they usually provide full-time care, even during school breaks. And they typically accept a wider age range, from infants through pre-kindergarteners.
How is preschool similar to daycare?
"A good daycare and a good preschool probably won't be all that different," says Leslie Roffman, director of San Francisco's Little School. "People tend to use the word 'daycare' in a derogatory way, but that's a misconception in popular culture."
Daycare centers and preschools must meet the same licensing and accreditation requirements, and in general, can be evaluated using many of the same criteria. They often cost about the same, too.
Are there differences educationally?
Not necessarily – though public perception may be otherwise. "If a large opinion survey were conducted on the difference between schools and childcare, school-based programs would be described as more educationally focused, while childcare programs would be seen as more custodial," writes Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, in her book The Preschool Years. But experts say the best daycare programs are carefully designed to encourage children's cognitive, social, and physical development too, just like preschools.
So if your child is already in an excellent daycare and you're happy with her progress, it might be better to keep her there until she starts elementary school, rather than switching her midstream.
Also, keep in mind that finding a good program to prepare your child for elementary school doesn't mean putting her in a rigorously academic one. "Be wary of programs that claim to teach academic skills or 'speed up' children's intellectual development," advise experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics in Caring for Your Baby and Young Child. "From a developmental standpoint, most preschoolers are not yet ready to begin formal education."
The bottom line
If your child's teacher or childcare provider genuinely cares about your child and her development – and does plenty of age-appropriate activities – both preschool and daycare are fine options.
Svetlana Robledo, a journalist in San Francisco, knows her family made the right decision based on her 3-year-old daughter's reaction: "Nina is brimming with joy and can't stop talking about all the things she's learning and doing."
Read more about preschool, including how to find a great program.