Preschool vs Daycare: What is the difference?

June 18, 2021

If your child has been home, either with you or a nanny, is ready for a structured program or more socialization and is around 3-4 years old you are probably thinking it’s time to enroll your child in preschool. Should you just be looking at preschools? Or can a  daycare offer the same thing? How do you decide between preschool vs daycare and what are the differences? We break it down below to help you understand whether or not a program is offering what you need.

It’s All in a Name

Programs often use the names “preschool” and “daycare” interchangeably so don’t just judge a program by its name. You have to actually look at what they are offering to understand if it's going to meet your needs. Preschools and daycares both need to be state certified as well as meet any other state guidelines and safety protocols. Daycares may offer a preschool like program for 3-5 year olds even though they also provide childcare for infants and toddlers. A center may use the word “preschool” in its name but offer longer hours and before and after care like a daycare would. Look at the specifics of the program and not just the name to find out if it's the right program for your child.

Educational Philosophy

Probably the biggest difference when trying to decide between a preschool vs. daycare is a focus on a curriculum or educational philosophy. A preschool typically follows a curriculum such as play-based or Montessori focused as examples. Preschools focus on preparing children for kindergarten. They offer more structured days with lessons.  Whereas a full-time daycare is more about providing care for a child during the day. Some daycares offer learning opportunities but children often are also spending time with free play, nap and meals. Both daycares and preschools offer socialization skills for your child, which is important during their time away from you.

Age Requirements

Another big difference between preschool vs. daycare is the age you can enroll your child. A daycare can provide care for children as young as six to 12 weeks old. A daycare can also include before or after school care for children up to 12 years old. Preschool is usually offered for children from 3 years old to 5 years old. A daycare may transition toddlers into a more preschool like environment at their own center at the age of 3. This could include incorporating things like morning meeting or circle time, learning about letters and numbers and teaching kids more independent skills.

Daycares typically separate children based on their age groups, and provide age-appropriate activities. Preschools also have classes based on ages.

Teachers and Staff

For a center that is preschool only it will likely have teachers who have degrees in early childhood education. And while a daycare will have certified staff members, teaching degrees usually aren’t required. Keep in mind that the licensing requirements are the same so a preschool doesn’t have to require teachers to have a degree in early childhood education. 

The staff-to-children ratio can be different at a preschool vs. a daycare depending on how the daycare is set-up. As children get older the capacity limits increase and the child: teacher ratio also increases. Both a daycare and a preschool are allowed to have upto twenty children in a classroom with a minimum of two teachers. A center-based daycare may look very similar to a preschool in class size and teacher ratios. However an in-home daycare is often much smaller and has a range of ages and will not necessarily have a separate room for older children.

Preschool vs. Daycare


A preschool will most likely follow a school calendar. This means it could be closed on holidays, weekends and even summer months. The hours are different too, and could be much shorter than a daycare. They usually run for several hours a day. And children may only attend a few days a week.

Daycares offer full-time care for children. The hours can vary. Some even offer extended hours to accommodate parents who have longer workdays. Most are not closed on holidays, and offer care during school breaks, which is a perfect option for working parents. In addition, a daycare may offer great flexibility. Perhaps you only need before or after care for school. A daycare can provide that.


Since a daycare is a place for parents to leave their children to be cared for, the services offered are different from a preschool. Meals may be provided at a daycare, whereas a preschool, since it’s a shorter program, might only have snack time.

Daycares usually offer drop-in care, where a preschool, since it is more structured, usually has a set start and end time.

Preschools, since they are for older children, require students to be potty-trained, whereas daycares offer diapering services.Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what is best for your child and your family. Do you want a more structured environment that will get your child ready for kindergarten? Or do you need full childcare while you head back to work? You should also compare pricing when looking at a preschool vs. daycare. You can use this guide to evaluate the value of a preschool vs. daycare.

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