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Child day care: What are the different types and options?

Feb. 22, 2019

The term “day care” sounds simple enough, but it’s actually an umbrella term that covers a huge range of child care options. Day care can be a full-time center-based program, a part-time home day care or even a Waldorf-focused preschool — the options are endless. Having that kind of choice is a benefit when it comes to finding the best, most flexible care for your children. But let’s be honest: It can also make the child care search confusing.

The good news is, no matter which type of child care you choose, there’s evidence to suggest that kids who participate in some form of high-quality care truly thrive. Studies have shown that children who attend quality day care exhibit better behavior, even into grade school. Academic preschools produce strong readers and children who excel in math. And the social interaction kids get in a day care setting may help them to be better communicators. The question is not whether day care has benefits for kids; the question is what type of child care can best meet your family’s unique needs?

Here Dr. Richard Fiene, a child care researcher and retired professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University, and Katrina Macasaet, a child development expert and content specialist for Zero to Three, help us break down some of the most common forms of day care and preschool to help you decide which ones might be best for your child and family.

OPTION

DEFINITION

COST

DAY CARE CENTER

 

A day care center
offers child care by
qualified private
providers in
standalone centers.

 

A day care setting
provides a wonderful
opportunity for
children to play
together, learn from
peers, and, in many
cases, gain preschool
skills.

 

Day care centers
provide children with
a learning or activity
structure; you may
even get regular
written
reports/updates on
your child’s
development.

BEST FOR:

 

  • Reliable, full- or part-time care

  • Built-in backup care

  • Operating hours similar to most parents’ work schedules

  • A variety of ages

  • Socialization with other kids

  • Staff have some early childhood education

  • Licensed and regulated

  • Play-based learning although some may
    integrate preschool curriculum

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

 

  • Higher child-to-teacher ratio can mean less individualized attention

  • May not offer infant care

  • May have potty training requirements

  • Don’t generally follow an academic curriculum

  • Exposure to shared germs

  • Must abide by day care sick policy

  • Closed most holidays

  • Strict pickup and drop-off times

$$$$$

IN-HOME DAY CARE

 

An in-home day care
is child care that is
offered by private
providers in their
homes.

 

An in-home day care
setting allows a
smaller group of children of
all ages to
socialize and play,
functioning more like
a family than a day
care center.

 

In-home day care
provides children a
more flexible
schedule of activities,
which can mean
more unstructured
playtime throughout
their day.

BEST FOR:

 

  • Full- or part-time care

  • Home environment

  • Operating hours similar to most parents’ work schedules

  • May offer more flexible pickup and drop-off
    times

  • A variety of ages

  • Socialization with other kids

  • Often cheaper than a day care center

  • More relaxed curriculum so there may be
    more time for free play

  • More individualized attention since there is
    lower child to provider ratio

  • Different-aged siblings can remain together

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

 

  • Limited to no options for backup care

  • Licensing not required in some states

  • Often an individual caregiver so more
    important to align on style, philosophy
    and personality

  • Don’t generally follow an academic curriculum

  • Exposure to shared germs

$$$$$

CO-OP DAY CARE

 

In a co-op day care, a
group of parents
commonly create a
schedule so they can
split child care duties
among the group.

 

The setting of a co-op
day care can be in a
home or other
designated co-op
space or rented facility.

 

A co-op day care
provides families with
flexible child care
and allows parents to
have a hand in
structuring activities,
curriculum and
playtime.

BEST FOR:

 

  • Shared, flexible child care for families who
    want to split caregiving duties

  • Schedule based around parents’ needs and
    availability

  • A variety of ages

  • Socialization with other kids

  • Often cheaper than other day care options

  • Different-aged siblings can remain together

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

 

  • Parents share care and backup care duties
    with other families

  • Licensing not required in some states

  • Increased coordination among more people

  • More complex communication

  • Must align with other families on standards of care, style, philosophy
    and personality

  • Exposure to shared germs

$$$$$

PRESCHOOL

 

A preschool offers
curriculum and care
for children ages 3-5
and focus on
kindergarten
readiness and acquiring classroom
skills.

 

Preschools may be
private and take
place in homes or
centers, or they may
be special programs
run by school districts
or other state
agencies.

 

A preschool day is
typically just two to
three hours in the
morning or afternoon,
so they work better
for parents with
flexible work
schedules or who use
secondary child care,
like a nanny or
grandparent.

BEST FOR:

 

  • Kindergarten readiness and acquiring
    classroom skills

  • Children ages 3-5 years old

  • Socialization with other kids

  • Staff have some early childhood education

  • Licensed and regulated

 

CONSIDERATIONS:

 

  • Higher child-to-teacher ratio can mean less
    individualized attention

  • May have potty training requirements

  • Some only offer half-day programs

  • Exposure to shared germs

  • Must abide by preschool sick policy

  • Closed most holidays

  • Strict pickup and drop-off times

$$$$$

Common questions about day cares

What is a day care center?

A center is what most people think of when they hear the term “day care.” Centers are special facilities that offer care for children of a variety of ages. They typically have different classrooms designated for different age groups, as well as a space to prepare food and space for outdoor play. Qualified caregivers are hired to work with specific groups of children, from very young infants all the way to school-age children, and teachers must adhere to state guidelines.

Traditional day cares don’t generally follow an academic curriculum. Instead, children may follow a schedule that includes playtime, mealtime, reading time and naptime, but most learning is play-based, which is ideal for young kids.

“Whether it’s pretend play or playing with Play-Doh that works your fine motor muscles in your fingers… we know that children learn best through play-based experiences,” says Macasaet.

Day care centers usually operate during similar hours to most parents’ work schedules, i.e. Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Hours can vary, and most centers charge additional fees for late pickups, so it’s important to choose a center with hours that align with your schedule.

What is an in-home day care?

“In-home” day cares are exactly what they sound like: day care programs that take place inside of someone’s home. Fiene notes that many parents of infants prefer in-home child care because it’s typically easier to find one close to your home and many have smaller ratios, allowing them to offer more individualized care. That said, it is important to vet providers thoroughly. Fiene says the provider should see their day care as a business, not a side gig, and parents should choose a licensed and/or accredited provider whenever possible.

There are two main types of in-home day cares:

  • Family day care: A family day care has one caregiver who cares for fewer than six children, though the specific amount will be determined by state-defined ratios. These providers may limit themselves to a specific age range or care for children of all ages.

  • Group day care: Group child care typically consists of two or more adult caregivers and a larger group of children of varied ages. For example, they may have two adult caregivers caring for seven to 11 children, depending on state ratios. It’s important that the providers have adequate resources and space to support a larger group.

What is a co-op day care?

Co-op care can take place in a home or other setting, such as in a designated co-op space or rented facility. In most co-ops, a group of parents split child care duties with each other. Parents may “swap” child care duties, rotating who hosts day care in their home each week, or they may work in shifts, assuming duties on certain days or during specific hours to accommodate each other’s schedules. Because co-ops are based on the needs of the parents involved with them, they may offer a more flexible schedule. That said, it’s important to make sure that everyone involved in the co-op is on the same page about basic standards of care, hours and the needs of the other families. It’s also important to adhere to state regulations, like ratios and safety guidelines.

Are day cares licensed?

Day care centers: In order to operate, day care centers must be licensed by the state, and the qualifications for licensing vary by state. Typically they include meeting certain health and safety requirements, as well as additional requirements related to training, certifications and background checks for employees. For example, in the state of California, day care center employees must be educated in early childhood development and child to staff ratios require one teacher for every four infants or six toddlers.

In-home day cares: Some states do not require in-home day cares to be licensed. It’s important to review the requirements for your particular state, which can be found by looking at your local state government website or by searching the National Database of Child Care Licensing Regulations.

Can day cares be accredited?

In addition to licensing, day cares can seek accreditation through independent agencies, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the National Accreditation Commission for Early Care and Education Programs (NAC), or the National Early Childhood Program Accreditation (NECPA). These agencies are nationally recognized and have a rigorous set of qualifications that day cares must meet, such as specific nutrition standards and required items that must be in the classroom to support learning and play.

According to Fiene, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. day cares are accredited. While accreditation is not a requirement or a 100 percent guarantee of quality care, he adds, “It’s a voluntary system and generally it indicates that providers have a real commitment to quality.”

What’s the difference between day care and preschool?

Preschool is care for children ages 3-5 that is focused on kindergarten readiness and acquiring classroom skills. Day cares, on the other hand, usually include younger kids and there’s less of an academic emphasis. Preschools may be private and take place in homes or centers, or they may be special programs run by school districts or other state agencies. Many preschools are half-day, taking place for two to three hours in the morning or afternoon, though some day cares now offer preschool programs for older children that integrate preschool curriculum into their full-time care.

Preschools typically follow one of several child development philosophies. You’ve likely heard of Montessori or Reggio Emilia preschools.

“There are so many different philosophies offered in child care programs, and a lot of them have very similar underlying components of play,” says Macasaet. “It’s just different in how it’s approached.”

Three of the most common are:

  • Montessori: Children learn from their peers in multi-age groupings, as well as through play-based activities in a specially set-up classroom with activity centers that stimulate their senses. Typically, children choose what “station” they’d like to play in and are not instructed to participate in one pre-determined activity as a group.

  • Reggio Emilia: Children learn through teacher-generated lessons based on their interests. For example, a teacher may set up a pretend classroom grocery store or restaurant with designated activities to explore children’s interests in food and cooking.

  • Waldorf: Children participate in play-based activities on a predictable schedule, such as having a designated art time, gardening time, baking time, etc. There’s an emphasis on creative learning, rather than learning through academic activities.

Read next: Do you qualify for child care assistance?

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