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Preschool and Pre-K:The Differences in Early Childhood Education

Education is rife with jargon, and the early learning space is no exception. Case in point: is it ECE, and for that matter, what does ECE mean? Spoiler alert: it’s Early Childhood Education. It’s also Early Care and Education. These two terms are used interchangeably….see isn’t this easy?! Is there a difference between preschool and Pre-K, and if so, which is best? Is it child care or childcare, day care or daycare, is it bilingual or language immersion?

The good news is, when it comes to learning in early childhood, all of the above programs can lead to children’s readiness for kindergarten and beyond – and the name doesn’t necessarily make a difference.

What’s important in an early learning setting isn’t what the program is called, but how many opportunities children have throughout their day to play, interact with other children, be outside, develop strong and healthy relationships, eat, rest, and grow. Each of these “events” is in and of itself a learning opportunity for a young child, and is important in the process of building a strong foundation of skills that are required for kindergarten and beyond.


Early Learning Through Play

You may be wondering, how is my child learning if they’re just playing all day?! Don’t kids need worksheets and direct instruction in order to learn?

Even if it looks like your kid is just having fun, play has a major impact on their development in every way.

As the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child,” and many studies show the benefits of play based learning.

Consider the following excerpt from NAEYC:

“When a very young child is playing, it may look random, unstructured, or like nothing much is happening. For example, a toddler walking on a wet street may stomp in each puddle, staring at the splashes that result and then stomping some more. When you observe closely, you see that this child is busy at play—and learning. He is experimenting with cause and effect (I can make the water splash with my feet!), making comparisons (stomp harder, make bigger splashes), and noticing different sensations on his skin (dry vs. wet). Through play like this, young children are actually learning basic principles of science and math” (Cohen & Emmons 2017).

The above learning happens almost unbeknownst to us – without us telling our child to stomp, without us telling them to observe the effects of their stomping, without us instructing them to find joy in this simple-and-yet-complex-in-learning activity. Examples like this are quite infinite.

Similarly, play based learning is shown to contribute to all types of development in early childhood – and potentially even beyond early childhood! Read more about play based learning here.


The Difference Between Preschool and Pre-K? Well, What’s in a Name?

Getting back to the question at hand, is there any tangible difference between preschool and Pre-K? Officially, there is not. Preschool and Pre-K (short for Pre-Kindergarten) most typically encompass children ages 2.5 to 5, may be mixed-age or more specifically age-related (such as a classroom for 3 year olds, a classroom for 4 year olds, etc.) and typically have teachers who meet their state’s qualifications for being an early learning teacher.

One difference that may be noteworthy is the difference between preschool and transitional kindergarten (TK), sometimes also referred to as “developmental kindergarten.” This type of program is most often offered via a school district, and is meant to ensure children who have not previously had an early learning experience have the opportunity to gain important social emotional skills prior to entering kindergarten. You can read more about choosing between TK or another year of preschool here.


play-based learning


Child Care or Preschool?

Probably an even more interesting question to ask is, what’s the difference between child care and preschool? As it turns out, child care IS early learning. Many child care programs offer care for children ages 0-5, and do provide concrete early learning experiences: All young children require a safe, loving, and stimulating environment. They need a predictable schedule and routine. They require adults who talk, sing, read, laugh, ask questions, play, and comfort them. No matter what name you use for them, these are all things the adults who care for young children provide. Child care is early learning. Child care providers are early educators.

Mia Pritts

Mia is the Head of Early Care & Education at Wonderschool. She started her career as a preschool teacher 20 years ago and has since taken on major leadership positions in the field of Early Care and Education. In addition to deep knowledge and expertise in all operational aspects of childcare programming, she has also helped launch several shared business services initiatives specific to the field of ECE.