Okay, baby time has been fun, but your maternity leave is up and you may be wondering: What’s the difference between daycare and preschool? Are they the same? Do the benefits of preschool outweigh those offered by a good day care?

Not necessarily. That’s because day care centers and preschools operate under the same general guidelines — they’re even licensed and regulated by the same state agencies. These days, day care centers often provide more than care — they also offer learning activities to prep kids for kindergarten, which means the curriculum may mirror a good preschool’s.

Plus, sending your child to day care can cost about the same as sending him to preschool. Still, there are some key differences between the options — differences you’ll probably want to consider before you turn over that (hefty) deposit. Here’s what sets them apart:

WHAT IS DAY CARE?

Daycare is geared toward providing a safe environment for children to stay when their parents are working or otherwise engaged. Children here play with others of their age group. Daycare provides parents with the ability to go to work and not fret about leaving their kids with a babysitter or the expense of hiring a private nanny. Daycares do not follow a school schedule, which means they offer longer hours and are open during holidays and school breaks. Infants to kids who aren't yet old enough to go to kindergarten are typically accepted into daycare. 

WHAT IS PRESCHOOL?

Most preschools accept students from ages 3 - 5. These children are learning and growing but not old enough to attend kindergarten. Preschool provides a foundation for older toddlers to build on when they reach elementary school. These facilities typically follow similar schedules to regular school, meaning they are closed on holidays and during the summer. Preschool is often a half a day, but some offer full days as well. 

HOURS

Preschools have shorter daily hours — most also close on holidays, for weeklong breaks and for the summer (though some preschools offer camp for an extra fee when the school year ends). With preschools, you usually have to choose between half-day and full-day programs. And you probably need to enroll your child for at least two days each week.

Daycare centers are more flexible when it comes to hours — they tend to open early and close late to cater to working parents. Plus, they’re more likely than preschools to remain open year-round. Some daycare centers allow you to totally personalize your child’s schedule (just an hour on some days so you can run errands at your pace and not your tot’s; full days on others so you can go to work). 

POTTY PREREQUISITES

Many preschools require a child to be toilet-trained. Daycares accept kids in diapers.

AGE REQUIREMENTS

Kids, from wee infants to grade-schoolers, are welcome at many daycare centers. That means your tyke may get a chance to socialize with bigger kids and be around babies (a huge bonus if your only child is soon becoming a big sibling). Downside: It also means the caregivers may be more preoccupied with the really little ones.

Preschools usually accept children ages 3 to 5. Plus, age groups tend to be separated at preschools — there’s usually one classroom for the 3-year-olds and another for the 4- and 5-year-olds, though they may mingle by the swings and slides at the playground.

CAREGIVERS AND TEACHERS

Preschool programs are more learning-oriented and are often based on a certain teaching approach. Many states have higher education standards for preschool teachers and directors than for those at daycare centers, so preschool staff may have more formal training. Still, Tennessee requires a minimum amount of experience for teachers at preschools and daycares. Look for friendly and knowledgeable staff who can handle daily leadership.

Cost of Child Care - Child Care Aware® of America

HOW TO DECIDE

What do you want your child to get out of his time while you're at work? Would you like those hours spent on purposeful learning or more social interaction and play? Do you prefer that your child is supervised by licensed teachers or daycare providers?

If you work irregular hours or a longer day than a 9 - 5, a daycare may be your best option as preschools offer limited hours. Your child's age is also a factor as he may not be old enough to attend preschool yet but can go to daycare until that time comes. It's also important to consider cost when making this decision.

Make sure to tour facilities you're interested in. Talk with the teachers or care providers to learn about daily routines and get to know some of the individual staff members. Your preferred program will be  the one that best fits you, your child, your schedule and your budget.

Make a chart of the individual pros and cons. Ask yourself: Which teachers are warmer? Which classroom is more inviting? Which one offers more engaging activities? The more on-site investigating you do, the more likely you’ll find the perfect daycare (or preschool) match for your munchkin — and you.