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The Day Care Guide: Your Day Care Options

In Part 1 of "The Day Care Guide," we list out the four most common types of day cares available and explain how they differ.

The Day Care Guide: Your Day Care Options
Image via Stocksy.com/Lumina

Finding a great day care can be overwhelming, thanks to the number of options available. If you’re searching for a new day care for your children, or your first child will be attending day care soon, it’s important to know the difference between each type.

Some day cares are located in public or private institutions (called facilities or centers); others are operated by a single caregiver in their private home. In each state, there are different regulations for the number of children that a day care can care for and the type of certifications that are needed.

Here we provide an overview of day care types. For more specific information on your state’s day care laws, including requirements for caregiver qualifications and provider/child ratio, check out this great list of state licensing requirements.

Day Care Center

A day care center is defined as a facility that cares for one or more preschool or school-aged children for less than 24 hours a day. It may be a standalone facility, or it could operate inside a business complex or even a church. These types of centers are often larger buildings with many different rooms and play areas, as well as an outdoor play area.

A child can attend either full or part time, with extra hours sometimes available for parents who need to get to work early or leave work late (outside of standard business hours). Centers must have state health and safety licenses to operate, and based on the state where they are located, they may have to meet additional requirements related to training, certifications, licensing, and background checks for employees.

In these facilities, caregivers are hired to care for specific age groups, with a set child-to-caregiver ratio (based on the state). Depending on the size of the center, kids of different ages may interact a lot, but they often have separate rooms or areas.

These facilities often have specific hours of operation, leaving less flexibility for parents who work early or late. Keep this in mind when considering this option, and make sure the day care center offers hours that reflect your specific schedule.

Family Child Care

Family child care is delivered in a private home, where a caregiver takes care of children for less than 24 hours a day. These caregivers are often required to have a state health and safety license, but not all states require this. Also keep in mind that many private providers do not seek licensing because of the cost and issues with state involvement. Be sure to ask about their license and background checks, and request references from current and previous families.

These family day cares are usually small enough that children of any age play together in the same area. Home providers may also be slightly more flexible with their hours of operation, but make sure to ask the provider before signing up if a flexible schedule is especially important to you.

You can learn more about family child care here.

Group Day Care Home

In a group day care home, a provider in a private home cares for a larger number of children for less than 24 hours a day. Once again, state law dictates the number of children permitted and the number of caregivers required to care for them. However, the number of staff should be higher to reflect the higher number of children, no matter what the state says. Keep in mind that many providers do not seek licensing because of the cost and concerns with state involvement.

Whether or not a group day care must be licensed, be sure to ask about the provider’s background checks. Also ask for solid references, as well as the background check and reference information for anyone who helps the provider run their day care.

A group day care home will often have children of all ages play together in the same area, but some home programs are larger and operate somewhat like a day care center. This type of care may provide more flexible hours, but make sure to ask the provider before signing up.

Co-Op Day Care

In a co-op, parents take turns handling the various duties that day care requires. Essentially, parents can play the role of teacher, chef, playground monitor, or even craft-time organizer. Those roles shift each day, with parents taking turns covering the different functions.

Participation options (and obligations) can differ widely from one program to another. Some co-ops are home or community based, while others are located in an actual facility with a director and staff. If it’s a group of parents who want home-based care, there is often a “swap” option where one parent hosts for the week, or one parent teaches for the week, and so on. If it’s a specific facility or program, expectations for parental involvement will be different. Just be sure you’re available—and willing—to participate in the way the co-op requires.

Of course, keep state regulations in mind no matter how the co-op is organized. Child-to-parent/teacher ratio is still important. Kids will most likely engage with other kids of varying ages, and the schedule may be less flexible, since parents are essentially donating their time to help run the program.

For more information on co-ops, check out Child Care Co-ops 101.

Standards for Care

Whatever the type of day care you choose, it’s important that you feel your child will be safe, happy, and taken care of. Day cares should offer age-appropriate activities and meals, as well as occasional outings, walks, or even field trips. Whether or not state licensing is required, you should always make sure that you know—and be comfortable with—who is caring for your child.

Once you’ve determined the type of day care you want, it’s time to start interviewing to make sure the provider is right for your family.

For help finding a day care center near you, use the Care.com Day Care Directory to search by ZIP code. 


Lisa Tabachnick Hotta writes about parenting and other issues for Care.com. A freelance writer, editor and researcher, she has two young children.

May 13, 2014

In ohio a family child care home does not have to be licensed by anyone!

May 13, 2014

Perhaps you could make a statement that says "the number of children in care varies by state". As it is now it is incorrect for Martland also.

Jan. 5, 2012


April 28, 2011

how much does it cost and where is it located?

March 22, 2011

The information here is incorrect (at least it is in California). A family/home day care is run in a private home, is still considered a "facility" and is licensed to provide care for 2-14 minor children. A group home is a live-in care facility. -Cynthia (a San Bernardino Family Day Care Owner)

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