At daycares and preschools alike, you'll find children singing at circle time, building with blocks, learning to share, and playing outdoors. So what's the difference between daycares and preschools, and why does it matter how you categorize your program?
In Italy, where the famous Reggio method originated -- see Jovial's guide to types of preschools -- and other countries in Europe, preschool and daycare are one and the same: a half-day program followed by after school enrichment. Children have the option to attend government-run or subsidized nurseries, preschools, or kindergartens until formal schooling begins at age 6 or 7.
On this side of the Atlantic, where programs are largely privately run and come in all forms and sizes, from in-home care to corporate chains to small half-day nonprofit preschools, it helps to hone in on whether you are a childcare center or preschool, so parents can determine whether your program matches their needs. See our guide below.
All early childhood programs strive to provide a nurturing, stimulating environment. But if your primary mission is to offer full-day childcare for working parents, you should market your program as a daycare.
Childcare centers can be as educationally enriching as preschools, but on top of fostering social-emotional growth, independence, and creativity, daycare providers handle routine care-related tasks like diaper changes, mealtime, and potty training.
If your goal is to prepare young children for kindergarten and beyond through educational and social experiences, leaving it up to parents to arrange additional childcare if necessary, then you are operating a preschool. Diapering and meals are not essential services at preschools; you might require children to be toilet trained to enroll, and run the program in the hours between breakfast and lunch.
Childcare centers tend to operate year round, closing only for major federal holidays and sometimes a week of staff training in the summer. It's not uncommon for daycares to open early in the morning and lock up at sundown. Some even offer overnight care, to accommodate parents that work at night.
Preschools are more likely to offer a half-day program, typically less than four hours long, and follow a 9-month academic calendar, with winter, spring, and summer breaks.
With early learning as their primary focus, many preschools close several days during the school year for professional development and parent teacher conferences. Some only run classes a few days a week.
Early on in the process of launching Oak Leaf, fellow board members and I debated whether to offer after school enrichment to accommodate parents' work schedules. One board member felt strongly that children should have unstructured time in the afternoon, away from a group setting. It should be up to parents, she said, to find a babysitter or other form of childcare in the afternoon if needed.
Others agreed. "We're a preschool, not a daycare," one board member chimed in. And it was settled: we would not extend our program beyond noon.
Some preschools do choose to offer after-school enrichment and summer camp, while still adhering to an educational, rather than childcare-driven, mission.
Lunch bunch, for instance, elevates mealtime into a social experience, and preschool aftercare activities tend to have a special focus, such as yoga, art, music, or nature play.
At preschools, enrichment classes often end earlier than the typical closing time for daycares - 3 pm, for instance, instead of 6 pm-and summer camps may be half-day educational experiences that only last a few weeks. At Glacier Way Cooperative School, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a former teacher taught an after-school science class only one hour each week.
In some states, programs that operate for four consecutive hours or less are exempt from daycare licensing. But others, like Illinois, require all programs to be licensed as daycares no matter how many hours they are open. Technically speaking, even a 2-hour educational program is a form of childcare!
Daycares typically look after infants and young toddlers in addition to preschoolers, which the American Academy of Pediatrics defines as ages 3 to 5.
Preschool programs typically open their doors to 3-5 year olds, with the goal of preparing children socially, emotionally, and in some cases, academically, for elementary school. Some preschools offer classes, usually only two to three days a week, for 2 year olds.
In the Chicago suburbs, where I live, demand is rising for half-day preschool for 2 year olds, perhaps inspired by a post-pandemic urge to foster social skills, but options are limited. Preschools nationwide may want to consider assessing community interest in educational programs for toddlers.
Preschools can get a little more creative when it comes to staffing, especially those exempt from state licensing (and the staff qualification requirements and ratios that come with it.)
Cooperative preschools, for instance, can rely on parent volunteers to assist in the classroom the way traditional daycares can't -- see Jovial's guide, how to start a preschool cooperative ("co-op").
Staff turnover is high at childcare centers, thanks to long shifts and low pay. (As you know, it's challenging to charge an affordable tuition while paying teachers a living wage.) According to a report on the daycare industry from the U.S. Treasury Department, "many child care workers are paid so little that they rely on public services for their own economic needs."
Half-day preschools struggle to pay decent wages, too, but they can attract educators looking for part-time work, perhaps while raising children or winding down a long teaching career. The majority of teachers at my sons' current preschool have master's degrees in education, and have worked at the program for years.
Business names tend to offer subtle - and not-so-subtle - clues to a program's status as a daycare vs. preschool. So it's worth thinking about what your program's name communicates to families, especially if you are opening a brand-new program and are still in search of a name.
"Nursery" is synonymous with preschool. Add cooperative or community, as in Northfield Community Nursery School, and you are as "preschool" as you can possibly get!
The terms "learning center" and "child development center" are common name choices for childcare centers, and it makes sense: whether formally classified as a preschool or daycare, all programs are ultimately hybrids, providing care (even if for a few hours) and early education.
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