What's Better, a Daycare or a Preschool?

Here's how you can decide

Which is better? A preschool or a daycare?
Which is better? Here's how you could decide. Getty Images/ Image Source

When my daughter turned two, I wondered if a preschool would be better than the daycare she's been in since she was six months old. I'd listen to the stories my friends would share. One friend talked about their preschool's amazing Montessori curriculum. Another would share that their child was getting a valuable religious education at their preschool.

I 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.

So my research began.

I toured about eighteen different preschools in our area and decided that you can't categorically state that a preschool or daycare is better for your child. Sure, a preschool typically begins at age 2 or 3 so the school has older children. While daycares take children as young as a few weeks old.

Do you want to know the true difference between a daycare and a preschool? It depends on the specific institutions you're comparing and how they'd fit into your family's life.

So when deciding between a daycare and a preschool get the answer to these three questions.

Do Their Hours of Operation Fit Your Schedule?

One of the most common differences between a preschool and a daycare center are 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.

If this is the case for the preschool you're checking out ask is how your child would transition. What will your child experience when you drop them off early? What will happen when the rest of the kids arrive? Then at the end of the day, when the majority of the kids leave, what happens to your child?

Your child's teacher's hours is another thing to consider. If your child spends the bulk of the day with a teacher who leaves at 3 pm how will you find out about your child's day? Or, if you drop your child off  before the care staff arrives, who do you share valuable information like how your child slept or any new anxieties your child has?

The best preschool and daycare centers will anticipate these questions and have a routine they follow. They'll tell you about how your child's teacher will share information like nap times, feeding, and day overview with you and other teachers. They could overlap teacher schedules or use an app to track daily activities.

What Is the Curriculum Like (And How Do They Differ)?

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

The hype about a particular preschool curriculum may be great but you should go see the school in action. When you visit the school check out the art on the walls. Are they 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 importantly, 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. Look for a combination of free play and structured play. You should be able to view a sample of their week's curriculum and their yearly schedule.

Who Are the Teachers and How Are They With Children?

Although teachers are last on this list, they're actually the top priority when choosing a child care option for your family.

Even the most highest-quality Montessori or Reggio Emilia curriculum in the world won't make up for a cold or disengaged teacher.

Find out what each teachers' educational qualifications are. How many years of experience do they have -- both overall and at the specific school? What is their teaching philosophy? 

When the teachers are happy, your kids will be happy. The happier a teacher is in her job the longer she'll stay there. When you visit try to 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.

Use your own observations of teacher-child interactions. 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.