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Preschool vs. day care: Which is best for your child?

Christine Miller is a professional school counselor who, thanks to her double life as a military spouse, has more than 10 years experience as both a counselor and teacher in schools at every level and all over the country. She holds deg...

Choose the right child care program

Whether you work 9-to-5, have a part-time job or are a stay-at-home mom, there are many reasons you might consider putting your child in preschool or day care.

My first day as a kindergarten teacher, I was a green, nervous new educator ready to change the world. As I watched the children walk through the door for the first time, the lead teacher in our department whispered to me, "I can tell exactly which kid has been to preschool and which one hasn't, and the ones who haven't are already so behind they’ll never catch up."

I was sure she was wrong, and that what happened before that day really didn't matter. As the year progressed, however, I came to see that her predictions were absolutely right. I learned a valuable lesson that year: Preschool — or any experience before kindergarten — is worth its weight in gold.

Studies show that quality early childhood education provides children with an important foundation — children who attend preschool are more likely to stay in school, graduate on time and earn a higher salary throughout their lives. The primary focus of most early childhood education is socialization, often described by experts as school readiness. As kindergarten grows increasingly academic, more and more day care centers and preschools provide programming focused on learning through play.

All places will aim to provide caring support to to help your children get ready for school. Choosing a quality program can be difficult for parents, however, as there are few constants between choices: part-day, whole-day, preschool, day care. Here are the most important factors parents need to make the best choice.

Know the differences

The basic differences in day care and preschool lie in structure. Day care is most often provided for children in wide age groups, and is generally provided year-round. Preschool is generally provided for 3- and 4-year-olds, and follows a traditional school-year calendar. There is more of a defined curriculum, and students are typically introduced to concepts designed to ready them for kindergarten. Many of the best day care centers will provide aspects of preschool.

Know what you need

What kind of setting do you need? Will your child need care daily, or are you looking for a few hours each week? Do you need care year-round, or on a traditional school-year schedule?

Understanding your expectations will help you narrow down the numerous choices for your family.

Know what to expect

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the preeminent professional association for early childhood education, accredits both early learning centers and programs to train service providers. While all childcare centers operate under state supervision, very few pursue or meet standards established by the NAEYC.

NAEYC also lists information about the components of a quality program. Accredited programs — day care or preschool — must maintain standards in 10 key areas. Those areas involve every aspect of your child's day, from facilities to food to curriculum.

Know what you can do at home

Regardless of the option you choose for your family, there is much you can do at home to support your child's first experience away from home. Zero to Three, a national nonprofit focused on promoting positive early child development, provides vital information about helping your child prepare to begin preschool.

For more help deciding whether or not a program is right for your child, download the Is this the Right Place for my Child? booklet from the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies. >>

More on parenting preschoolers

The importance of play
Teaching sharing and other manners
Good sports for preschoolers

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