Daycare vs. Preschool: Making the Right Choice for Your Child’s Care and Development

When figuring out whether preschool or daycare is better for your child, you might run into a challenge. Since the words “preschool” and “daycare” are sometimes used interchangeably, how can you really tell them apart? Below, you’ll find a detailed comparison of daycare vs. preschool so you can choose the right program for your child to learn and grow.

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Daycare defined

What Is Daycare?

Daycare is a child care service in which children are cared for on a regular basis outside the family home. Your children will join a group of other children at either a commercial daycare center or a family child care facility in a provider’s home. Since centers are commercial entities, they are typically more expensive than family child care.

Daycare centers may care for children as young as six weeks old, making them a great choice for working parents of very young children. Daycare programs also offer an enriching environment to support child development. The main purpose of daycare, though, is to assist parents with child care when they need it.

Parent expectations

What to Expect from a Daycare Program

Every daycare program is different. For starters, you can find both partial-day and full-day programs. Part-time daycare can be a great option for parents who don’t work a typical 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work schedule. In any case, daycare providers ensure your child gets adequate nap time and that all their nutritional needs are met.

Some daycare programs separate children into different age groups, such as infants and toddlers. Others offer mixed-age programs in which children interact with peers of different ages. Both types of child care programs give kids the opportunity to develop important social skills that will benefit them in early childhood and beyond. Since daycare programs focus on kids interacting and playing group games, your child will learn to cooperate and share.

Daycare programs balance routine and structure with free play, so your child may start to gain a sense of self-confidence and independence. Your child may also form close bonds with their daycare providers, and that’s important for their social development. One of the drawbacks of daycare, though, is that provider turnover may be higher than in a preschool program. This can be particularly challenging for young children such as infants, who often become especially attached to their care providers.

preschool definition

What Is Preschool?

Preschool is an early childhood education (ECE) program that focuses on the pre-academic skills children will need for elementary school. Preschool age requirements differ among schools but usually include children between ages 3 and 5. Child care through preschool programs is typically less expensive than infant care.

A typical day at preschool will include activities that mix learning and playing based on a preschool’s curriculum and educational philosophy. Example philosophies include Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf. You can also find these programs with language immersion and STEAM or STEM orientation.

parent expectations

What to Expect from a Preschool Program

Beyond the environment, in-home and child care center programs offer a variety of curriculum for learning and development.

Educational Focus
  • Social Skills Development: A key component of preschool is helping children learn how to interact with peers and adults in a structured setting.
  • Introduction to Academics: Preschools introduce basic concepts in literacy (like letters and phonics) and math (such as counting and basic shapes).
  • Language Enrichment: Children in preschool often show improved vocabulary and language skills due to the structured environment and interaction with teachers and peers.
Structure and Routine
  • Structured Environment: Unlike daycare, preschool has more structured activities based around a teacher's lesson plans.
  • Balanced Schedule: Although there is a focus on learning, preschools also provide ample time for free play, allowing children to explore and develop creativity.
  • Routine-Oriented: Following a routine helps young children to feel secure and understand expectations.
Early Learning Growth & Readiness
  • Preparation for Kindergarten: The primary goal of preschool is to prepare children for the transition to kindergarten, both socially and academically.
  • Diverse Activities: Activities in preschool are varied and include arts and crafts, storytelling, playtime, and basic academic lessons.
  • Teacher Interaction: Preschool teachers play a crucial role in guiding and nurturing children, often focusing on fostering independence and self-confidence.
differences in child care options

Key Differences Between Daycare and Preschool

Below are the most essential differences between preschool and daycare programs. Wonderschool can help you find the right fit no matter which program you wind up preferring for your family.



Children's Ages
Children's Ages
As young as six weeks; as old as 6 years
Children's Ages
2 to 5 years old; most kids enroll at 3 or 4 years old
Program Cost
Program Cost
More expensive, especially for infants; commercial centers more expensive than family child care
Program Cost
Less expensive than infant care
Schedule Flexibility
Schedule Flexibility
  • Greater year-round flexibility
  • Drop-off as early as 7 a.m.; pickup as late as 6 p.m.
  • Part-time options common
  • Typically open year-round
Schedule Flexibility
Less expensive than infant care
Care Providers
Care Providers
  • Some daycare staff may have, or be in training for, ECE degrees
  • Often higher provider-to-child ratios
Care Providers
  • More robust ECE training
  • Often lower provider-to-child ratios
Educational Content
Educational Content
  • Daily routines give your child a chance to play and explore
  • Interactions with peers and social skill development
  • More free play time
Educational Content
  • More structured schedule with lessons
  • Greater focus on building basic reading and math skills
how to select a program

Choosing the Right Program for Your Child

Choosing between daycare and preschool encompasses more than your schedule needs and your child’s age. The right choice also depends on your child’s current development — children in preschool are expected to hit certain milestones before their first day. This includes potty training, the ability to follow directions and communicate basic needs, and previous experience interacting with other children.

If you’re on the fence about preschool and child care, it helps to research individual programs. For example, even if your child is still working on their communication skills, they may benefit from certain preschool programs. If your child loves the outdoors, programs such as forest schools might be a great fit.

You can visit as many daycare centers and preschools as you need until one feels right. It’s also smart to ask other parents about their experiences or search online for reviews and testimonials. That said, every child and their development journey is unique. A program that might not work for another family could be exactly what your child needs to flourish. You can always use our checklist to help evaluate the best option.


Preschool or Daycare: Make the Choice That’s Right for Your Family

Choosing the best child care program for your family isn’t an easy choice. It’s easier, though, if you understand the key differences between daycare and preschool. With this knowledge, you’ll be more confident that your final decision is the right one. Whether you want to prepare your child for kindergarten or build their social skills in a mixed-age setting, there’s a program for you.

Ready to choose the best early education option for your child? Explore Wonderschool’s daycare and preschool providers in your area to find the right fit. Your child's bright future starts here!

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