How to Choose between Child Care and Preschool


As a work at home mom, I am starting to see that my busy and spirited two-year-old daughter needs something more besides me and Daniel Tiger each day.

I am counting down the days until I can drop her off at school so that I can work guilt-free as she gets to meet new friends, paint, and play to her heart's content.

I have been going online to one of my favorite sources to find out what my choices are: mom groups on Facebook. But to be honest, this is so much harder than I expected. When it comes to choosing a school, there is not always one clear answer.

I have worked in both child care programs and preschools, and I have seen good ones and bad ones. What matters to me more than the name preschool or child care is the people inside the building. And next to that is the price.

How to Choose Between Child Care and Preschool

So how do you decide between child care and preschool? A great first step is to talk to friends or family members who go to the schools you are interested in. Find out what they like or don't like, and keep in mind that something that is important to them might not matter so much to you and vice-versa.

It's also important to take a tour of the school and to meet the staff there. You can usually tell very quickly if it's something that won't work out.

There are some big differences to keep in mind. Here are four factors every parent needs to consider when choosing between a preschool or child care program.

The Hours

One of the most important differences between a preschool and child care program is how often and how long they are open. In general, a preschool has shorter days than a child care program.

Preschools typically last for a for a couple of hours or an entire morning. Some offer extended times too. They follow school schedules and close during holidays and take summers off. You will see more closures due to weather (such as a snow day) and more holidays observed at a preschool.

Child care programs, on the other hand, are typically year-round with hours that are convenient for parents who work full time or who need something more than a couple mornings a week. Some child care programs even offer overnight care, and there are even child care centers that are open 24/7.

In general, they are open for more holidays, and they have less closures due to weather or other events.

The Price

I live in the 10th most expensive state for child care of all the U.S. so I can appreciate that child care and preschool cost a pretty penny, no matter what the amount is.

When it comes to what is more affordable, it all depends on your needs.

A child care program will cost you more overall, but the price is almost always lower when you break it down hour by hour. Sometimes it's several dollars less for each hour. If you are looking for 15 or more hours a week, this can make a huge difference.

Enrollment fees, activity fees, and other related fees are usually lower at child care centers too.

There also aren't usually long-term commitments for child care and two-weeks notice is standard for leaving.

Preschool prices will be less per month than child care, and it is a great option for families who don't need full-time care. If you are looking to put your child in a program for only two or three mornings a week, chances are that the preschool will be much more affordable.

If you take vacations around the holiday season or summers, preschools typically follow the school year and are already closed for those times and have factored in tuition.

Many times a non-refundable deposit is required at a preschool to hold a child's spot, and a preschool can fill up in February or March for the following school year in August or September.

If you need to give notice to leave a preschool, some preschools require a few weeks notice while others require a year-long commitment.

The Ages

Most child care programs begin taking children around infancy or the toddler years, and children can grow through the program as they become preschool aged. Some even take school-age children before and after school.

Many preschools require that a child is three years old or older. Some begin as early as two-years-old though. They may have to turn three or four by a specified date, and there can be other requirements as well, which I'll talk about next.

There is even a third type of program I've seen which is more like a mom's morning out which offers parents care for a few hours and begins when children are younger, such as 12 months or 18 months.

Potty Training Requirements

Potty training is typically a part of child care as they will have changed your child's diaper through those younger years and have the supplies and proper setup to help little ones in diapers or nappies. There might be specific classes that are designed for children who do not need diapers, but in general, there would be some sort of accommodation.

Many preschool programs expect children to be potty trained upon entering preschool. Some locations require extra licensing regulations with potty training, which may influence why a preschool decides to only accept potty trained children.

There is hope though for children who are not potty trained by three because there are programs that assist with this and look at it more in terms of readiness instead of age.

Important Questions to Consider

The bottom line when choosing between a child care and preschool program is that you have to know what works best for your family.

Do you work full time?

Are you looking to find a program that is open year-round?

Are you on a smaller monthly budget?

Does your child do better when away from you for shorter periods of time?

Are you looking for something close to your home, or are you willing to travel a little ways?

Do you need a classroom for your child with extra staffing?

Does your child thrive in a smaller setting?

Do you have children of different ages who need care?

The best program is always the one that supports your family well and the needs that go along with it.

Here are some other factors to consider as well:

Many child care programs offer preschool classes, even with morning hours. I recommend calling around, and you may find you have many more options than you originally thought.

Both preschools and child care programs have experienced and educated teachers. Some of the best teachers I've known have been in both settings. It is important to look at each program individually though because turnover is high in the early childhood field, and staffing can vary greatly from program to program.

You don't always get what you pay for, and in this instance, it's a good thing. Quality programs can be very affordable, so I wouldn't brush off a program based solely on price. There are even free programs available which offer children amazing opportunities and resources. You don't have to break the bank to find a great program, so definitely do your homework.

Be sure that the preschool or child care program you are looking into is operating according to the minimum requirements set by your local government. Some programs require licensing, while others may not. I know of a few amazing programs across the U.S. that are not licensed, but are still legal and would be wonderful options for families. It's important that parents do research, get referrals, look up ratings (if available), and truly find out what goes on inside of any program they have decided upon.

The bottom line is to do your homework and to really meet the people who are running the school or program.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

You have given me lots to consider for my child. Thanks for sharing.