Daycare vs. preschool vs. pre-K

Today’s parents face a lot of choices about early childhood care and education – and it can be stressful to comb through the options, try and find the right fit for Baby, and wonder if you’ve made the right decision.

Daycare and pre-school and pre-K – oh my!

With a child who’s about to turn three, the options include daycare, pre-school, and potentially pre-K programs. Because there can be overlap and childcare can vary by area, it isn’t always easy to figure out where Baby should be going. Here’s a basic overview to help you get a handle on each one, along with what to look for as you make your selection.


In general, daycare facilities care for children from infancy until they are ready to attend kindergarten. This option generally offers daily care with hours that accommodate the needs of parents who work outside of the home. These group settings allow toddlers to socialize with other children their age, and programs feature a variety of indoor and outdoor activities. Several different types of daycare settings exist, including center-based and home-based facilities, and they can be independent or affiliated with religious, public, or private organizations.

What to look for:

  • Does the facility have a license?
  • What’s the staff/child ratio?
  • Is there a handbook that covers the center’s outlook and policies?
  • What are the educational levels of teachers? Did they undergo background checks prior to employment?


Parents may look into pre-school programs for children ranging in age from 3 to 5. Preschool focuses on getting children ready for the academic, social, and behavioral environment of kindergarten. Pre-school programs are usually part-time, although some daycare facilities offer a pre-school option. You’ll find that pre-school programs can be operated by or affiliated with state educational departments, public school systems, religious organizations, or private companies.

What to look for:

  • What does the curriculum cover?
  • Do the teachers hold degrees in early childhood education, and what’s their experience level?
  • What are the policies on such issues as behavior, educational approach, etc.?


Much confusion reigns over pre-school vs. pre-K programs. Are they different or one-in-the-same? According to a publication of the National Association for Education of Young Children, pre-K programs are different because they focus precisely on kindergarten readiness and help ensure that children have the tools they need by the third grade to thrive in school. In addition, pre-K programs primarily are designed for 4-year-olds (but this can vary), have to meet certain educational quality standards, and ensure that children are prepared for school. Public schools oversee a significant number of pre-K programs, and many receive state funding.

What to look for:

  • What’s the activity breakdown each day?
  • What are the program metrics?
  • What type of family involvement does the program offer?

Finding the right program for Baby is a big decision. Take the time to thoroughly research available choices, talk to parents with children attending the programs you’re considering, and make sure whatever option you choose is a good match for Baby‘s personality and abilities.

  • Laura J. Colker. “Pre-K: What Exactly is It?” National Association for the Education of Young Children. TYC. February/March 2009. Vol. 2 No. 3
  • “Types of Child Care.” Child Care Aware.U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Office of Child Care (OCC) 2016.
  • “Choosing a Child Care Center.” Choosing Quality Child Care: What’s Best for Your Family? American Academy of Pediatrics. 11/21/15.
  • “Pre-K for All Parents and Families: What to Look for in a Pre-K Program?” The New York City Department of Education. 2017.

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