What Is the Difference Between Daycare and Preschool?

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When trying to choose the best option for your family, it’s essential to take into account a variety of factors. Lots of moms want to make sure that their little one is getting the best possible experience during their daily schedule. However, not many know the difference between daycare and preschool.

When I first started looking into the idea, I became so overwhelmed with our options and didn’t know where to begin. Some of my friends dropped their kids off at daycare every day while others opted for the preschool option. Most of them were pretty uninformed on the difference, and I imagine you’re also in the same boat.

Well, there is a difference between the two, and knowing what distinguishes them from each other is super important for making the right decision for you and your family.

What’s The Debate About?

Well, it’s really about what’s convenient and suitable for your family. Most parents assume that preschool is a level up from daycare centers. But daycares offer more than just care—they also provide a range of interactive learning activities to prepare your children for kindergarten. Along with the educational activities aspect, there is definitely an overlap in the services offered at both. 

However, there are also many key differences between the two. You’ll want to consider these before enrolling your little one in one or the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses, but it all depends on your circumstances and preferences, of course. 

What’s A Preschool?

Preschool is typically for children between the ages of three to five—those who aren’t necessarily toddlers but are still too young to go to kindergarten.

A sign of a good preschool is that it highlights and embraces your child’s unique development and lays the groundwork for kindergarten. It’s designed as both an introduction to formal education and an opportunity for your little one to become familiar with the world outside of the home.

Preschool curriculums—or at least good ones—should be engaging for your child and introduce them to language, letters, and numbers at the very least. There should also be free play and structured learning-based play.

What’s A Daycare?

A daycare is usually associated with busy parents dropping their kids off during their working hours. Daycares at the most basic level provide full-time childcare services for children under 12 years old.

Daycares are focused more on the “care” aspect rather than the development action. However, they are really convenient and suitable for a wide age group. Daycares follow a simple model of free play time, napping, and informal learning activities.

Of course, any good daycare will have qualified staff. However, keep in mind that daycares’ approach towards staff and teachers is much laxer than that of preschools. Teachers don’t necessarily meet the same standards as preschool teachers.

What’s The Difference?

It can be kind of confusing navigating all the various options. Preschools emphasize education and development, while daycares focus more on being convenient and accessible and offer basic learning activities.


In terms of age, preschools usually only take in children between three and five years old, and they must already be potty trained. However, daycares serve a wider age range, from toddlers to children as old as twelve years old. This is great if you have older kids who need to be taken care of directly after school if your work conflicts with pick-up times.

If your child is too young, daycare is the best option as they don’t require them to be potty-trained and will offer more comprehensive caregiving. However, if your child is a toddler or older, it’s definitely a good idea to enroll them in preschool and introduce them to the formal realm of learning.


Preschools also offer a specific curriculum aimed at aiding in your child’s academic progress. They operate almost like a standard school with tests and screenings and progress reports. 

Because of the wide age range in daycares, your child won’t necessarily be interacting with children in her or her age group. However, in a preschool, the kids are around the same age, so this might be better for them.

Again, some daycares do abide by certain curriculums as well, but this isn’t as regulated as preschool education. Your children may be introduced to basic learning concepts but won’t get a comprehensive, well-rounded education like in a preschool. Again, they are more geared towards child watching.


If you’re looking for a more intimate and personal experience, preschools might be a better option. You get more child and teacher interaction in preschools as opposed to daycares. They both serve the same function of taking care of your child, but preschools offer more education-based activities.

preschool activity

Although both are licensed by the state and have qualified staff, numerous states have set higher educational standards for preschools than those at daycares. What does that mean in practice? It means preschool teachers receive more formal training. Don’t worry; there are standards for both. States still require a minimum amount of experience for caretakers and teachers at daycares.


One of the biggest differences between the two is the hours offered. Preschools usually operate like normal schools and provide care for shorter hours. They also close for holidays, breaks and the summer. However, some may offer additional services in order to stay competitive with daycares. You’ll find many preschools offer summer school and even full-time, year-round programs.

However, if you don’t find a preschool with all these options and you have a busy schedule, opting for a good daycare center might be better for you.

What Are The Similarities?

Well, there are many! Preschools and daycares are both licensed and regulated by the state, and both employ qualified staff—whether they be caretakers or teachers. But of course, the quality of the staff and the services offered vary by institution. Sometimes the daycares in your area might have more qualified staff than your local preschool.

A qualified, well-staffed daycare is just as great as a good preschool. So don’t dismiss the option right away. The best daycare programs are designed with your children’s social, physical, and cognitive development in mind, similar to preschools. There may not be a big difference educationally, so take a look at the schedules offered when deciding.

Also, it’s important to note that searching for a quality program to prep your little one for school doesn’t have to be mainly focused on a rigorous academic curriculum. There’s a reason why formal education isn’t officially mandated until elementary school.

So if you’re biased towards preschool because you think its benefits outweigh those of daycares. You might want to think again, honestly. I had the same misconceptions, and after a lot of research, I found that although on the surface they might appear dramatically different, they’re actually more similar than they are different. It all depends on the quality of the place.

In terms of pricing, the cost is about the same for both but varies by state.

Final Thoughts

Whether you end up choosing preschool or daycare depends really on what program fits your family best. Delve deeper into the specific preschools and daycares in your area. You know the main criteria now and have all the tools to make the right choice. 

Are the hours and learning guidelines suitable for you and your child? Are the teachers more experienced and qualified in one place as opposed to the other? Will this aid your child’s development and growth? There are lots of considerations to help you with your decision.

Cristin is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice, and the loving mother of two wonderful children. In her free time, she can often be found in a yoga studio or catching up on her favorite shows.