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What's the Difference Between Daycare and Preschool?

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Kindergarten teacher reading to children
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When my daughter turned two years old, I started to wonder whether preschool would be a better environment for her than the daycare center where she'd been since 6 months of age. After all, I'd heard friends talk about their amazing Montessori curriculum or the valuable religious education their preschoolers received, and wanted similar benefits for my little one. About 85 percent of the human brain develops in the first three years of life, so I wanted her in an enriching, educational environment.

I toured about 18 different preschools in our area and concluded that you can't categorically state that preschool or daycare is better for your child. Sure, a preschool typically begins at age 2 or 3, while daycares take children as young as a few weeks old. But the difference between a daycare and preschool ultimately depends on the specific institution and how it might fit into your family's life. So when deciding on daycare vs preschool for your child, consider these factors.

Hours of Operation

One of the most common differences between preschool and a daycare center is the hours of operation. Preschools are typically open from either 9 am to 12 pm or 9 am to 3 pm, while daycare centers offer full-day coverage, usually from 7 am to 6 pm.

However, many preschools will provide before and after care, to accommodate working parents' schedules, often giving as much coverage as a daycare center. One important question to ask is how the transitions from before care and to after care are handled in the preschool or daycare you're considering. If your child spends the bulk of the day with a teacher who leaves at 3 pm, that person won't be able to debrief you about your child's day. Or, if you drop off your child to separate before care staff, you miss the chance to share valuable information like how your child slept, any new anxieties or what he ate for breakfast.

The best preschool and daycare centers will anticipate these challenges and have a routine method of sharing information from parent to teacher, and among teachers. Perhaps that's a form with boxes to check about sleep, feeding, diapers and mood. Or maybe one teacher in the room works from 7 am to 3 pm and the other from 10 am to 6 pm, so they overlap enough to give the children a seamless experience.

What you want to avoid is the situation I saw in some preschools I toured, where the kids of working parents are shuffled like orphans from room to room, as the other kids' parents pick them up, the group of children remaining shrinks and teachers leave for the day. One preschool moved the children from room to room at 3 pm, 4:30 pm and 5 pm. Very disconcerting for those little guys!

Curriculum

When it comes to curriculum, the lines between daycare and preschool are becoming blurred. Preschools are offering a play-based curriculum that mirrors a daycare. Some daycare centers are even adopting the world-famous Montessori curriculum, focused on children becoming more self-sufficient and solving problems together.

Again, the brand or hype about a preschool curriculum can't compare to your own ears and eyes while touring a daycare or preschool. Is the art on the walls too perfect to have been created independently by children? Red flag. Are the teachers presenting three-year olds with endless worksheets and memorization drills? Not age appropriate. Most important, are the teachers actively engaged with the children and are the children interacting happily? That's what you want!

Ultimately, what children need in a daycare or preschool curriculum is an engaging introduction to oral language, phonemes and letters, words, mathematics and puzzles, science and cultural concepts. There should be a strong play-based component, since children learn through play. Ideally, you want a combination of free play and structured play. You should be able to view a sample week's curriculum and at least a rough schedule for the year.

Teachers

Although I put teachers last on the list, they're actually my top priority when choosing a child care option for your family. The highest-quality Montessori or Reggio Emilia curriculum in the world won't make up for a cold or disengaged teacher.

Look at the teachers' educational qualifications and also their years of experience -- both overall and at the specific school. When the teachers are happy at a daycare or preschool, they stay longer. When the teachers are happy, your kids will be happy. Stay in the school as long as you need to gauge whether the vibe is happy or chilly in the director's office and various classrooms.

And again, use your own observations of teacher-child interactions during several visits to the school. You should be able to see mutual affection and respect. If the children are playing happily and the teachers are otherwise occupied, don't conclude that they're disengaged. The best teachers let children explore independently and work out some of their own conflicts, while keeping a watchful eye to know when to intervene. Be prepared for a higher level of chaos and noise than you'll find in either your home or workplace -- that goes with the territory when a large group of children are involved.

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