Child Care By Any Other Name

Question: Can you explain the difference between daycares, child development centers, and preschools? People use all these different terms when they ask what I’m planning for my baby, and I don’t understand what they are actually referring to.

Answer: Folks are often confused about these terms, which are sometimes used interchangeably, although they do have slightly different meanings. Many early childhood professionals dislike the term “daycare,” because of its connotation of babysitting that belies the amount of hard work, preparation, and expertise that qualified teachers bring to the field. However, many families often still use this term without quite knowing what it means.

“Daycare” usually refers to a center-based or home-based setting where there is little or no expectation of much structure, or of intentional, developmentally-appropriate learning experiences provided for children. Children are usually (though not always) grouped by age, and provided with age-appropriate materials, with adult caregivers mostly there to meet children’s basic needs and provide sufficient supervision for safety.

Child development centers typically have a more structured approach, and focus on helping children reach their developmental milestones. They may do more in the way of assessment than daycares, and have an established curriculum and lesson plans to guide what teachers are doing with children. There often is more consistency between the various classrooms, so that children will be exposed to similar teaching and interaction styles from one room to the next.

Preschool usually refers to the year before kindergarten, and many preschool or pre-k programs have a more academic focus that is intended to prepare children for the skills and behaviors that will be expected of them once they start school.

All of this being said, because these are not official terms, many high-quality, developmentally-appropriate programs are sometimes referred to as daycares (either by the families that use them, or even the programs themselves), and there can certainly be child development centers and preschools that do little more than offer basic care. The best way to select a place for your child is to get recommendations from parents you trust, and visit. Talk to the director and the teachers; observe interactions in the classroom and the daily routine of the class your child would be joining. Try to visit more than once to see different times of the day, and decide whether it’s a good fit for your child and your family’s needs.