Preschool vs Daycare: Pros, Cons & Differences Explained

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Preschool vs daycare explained

When it comes to paying professionals to watch your child so that you can have the privilege of going to work…

(I’m kidding. Sort of.)

… you have a lot of different childcare options.

  • Grandparents
  • Babysitters / Nannies
  • Daycare
  • And preschool

Free options are great!

But I definitely feel like we’ve gotten a lot out of having our daughter in structured daycare and preschool environments where she’s learned how to make friends and developed speech and learning skills at lightning speed.

What actually is the difference between preschool vs daycare?

There are a few differences between preschool and daycare, but the largest one is the structured learning curriculum found in preschool, which focuses heavily on school readiness, numbers/counting, and vocabulary.

Daycare is usually less structured and often focuses more on fun, activities, arts and crafts, etc.

These days, however, it’s most common to find facilities that do a little bit of both — starting kids in an infant daycare program and transitioning them into preschool over the course of a few years, all in the same building, with a heavy focus on learning and school-skills the entire time.

Popular childcare choices like Primrose (where my daughter goes!), Goddard, Kids ‘r Kids and more use this type of model.

But if you’re weighing a preschool-type facility versus a pure daycare, here’s a little more about the differences and pros and cons of each.


Age range

If you’re in a household where both parents work, you likely don’t have unlimited maternity or paternity leave.

That means you’ll probably be looking for childcare options with your newborn that begin around 6 weeks of age.

Most daycares won’t take babies younger than 6 weeks. For most, that’s the cut-off.

(To be clear, you’ll probably need to start scouting out daycares WAY before this; likely during your pregnancy. If you’re in a competitive area, you might need to start scouting daycares and joining waiting lists while you’re trying to get pregnant.

Yes, seriously.)

Preschool programs tend to start around 2 years of age and may cater to kids as old as 5 or 6, depending on where you live.

Again, it’s pretty common nowadays to find schools that do both.

My daughter started daycare at Primrose as a baby and eventually went on to their preschool program, and then even state-wide pre-kindergarten, all while staying in the same building.


Hours

Most daycare centers are designed to accommodate the typical American workday.

In my area, it’s common for daycare centers to open around 6:30am and close around 6:30pm.

You may find that preschools in your area have hours that more closely resemble “big kid school” — around 8am to 2:30 or 3pm, for example.

But again, this distinction is becoming less and less, well, distinct.

At our local Primrose, the preschool classrooms are operated on pretty much the same schedule as the daycare classrooms; after all, it’s all in the same facility.

The hours don’t change until kids enter pre-K — which is not to be confused with preschool.

(That’s a topic for another article.)


Potty training

Does your toddler need to be potty-trained to go to preschool?

Usually, yes.

At our local Primrose here in Georgia, our daughter needed to be potty-trained in order to “graduate” from her daycare class and join the preschool kids.

Obviously, when you’re just starting off a newborn or young baby in daycare, they won’t need to be potty-trained.

(Though that would be pretty cool if they were.)

Typically the teachers working with older kids are focusing on learning activities and classroom safety, not running around changing diapers every 5 minutes!.


Learning and curriculum

The curriculum and learning environment will change drastically depending on which school your child goes to and where you live.

They each have their own different way of doing things!

(Check out my comparisons, like Primrose vs Goddard and Waldorf vs Montessori for more on this.)

But usually, dedicated daycares are focused on:

  • Fun
  • Arts & crafts
  • Imagination & play
  • Social skills
  • And just keeping everyone happy and alive!

A preschool environment, or a hybrid-type facility that brings a little preschool curriculum to the daycare students, focuses on:

  • Counting
  • Vocabulary
  • Critical thinking or problem solving
  • And other skills to prepare for pre-K and kindergarten

Assessments

In the more structured preschool environment, a heavy emphasis is placed on the developmental progress of the children.

Each preschool may have its own assessment process, or it may use a nationally recognized assessment in order to gauge learning and development.

(They need to do this in order to keep their accreditations and licenses.)

You should also expect parent-teacher conferences to update parents on progress or issues.

At our Primrose, this happens in the daycare classes as well. We had our first parent-teacher conference when our daughter was just learning to crawl!

We got to hear all about her:

  • Motor skills
  • Speech skills
  • Social skills
  • Academic progress
  • And more

However, pure daycare facilities with a less formal curriculum probably won’t administer assessments like this.


Licenses

If you’re paying your nextdoor neighbor to watch your toddler, they don’t have to be licensed.

But any formal daycare or preschool facility in the United States needs to be.

According to ChildCare.gov, the licensing requirements differ in each state, but they’ll mandate things like:

  • Child-staff ratio
  • Safety requirements
  • Immunization and disease-prevention protocols
  • Training requirements for staff
  • Etc

Cost

It’s so hard to compare pricing of daycare and preschools, because they vary vastly on the individual school and part of the country, as well as how many hours per day or week your child needs care.

But I did find some interesting data from Brookings.

They found that the median American household spent about $10,400 per year on childcare for their babies (less than a year old).

That number steadily dropped toward $6,500 when the children reached 4-years-old and were likely in more structured preschool classrooms or even pre-K.

In any case, expect any significant chunk of childcare (whether daycare or preschool) every week to be quite expensive.


Wrapping Up

The difference between daycare and preschool is mostly academic.

Chances are, you’ll find most facilities in your area do both, transitioning babies from infant daycare, to toddler daycare, to preschool, and finally to pre-K.

However, your family situation might dictate that you need a general daycare facility; or maybe you just prefer them.

In either case, you’ll probably find the academic curriculum to be a little bit laxer in daycare than preschool. Your child will also have to be potty trained before moving up, so don’t put it off for too long!

Any other questions? Let me know in the comments.

And I hope this helps, parents!

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