How to decide on daycare, nursery school or preschool

Find the best fit for your child’s personality and learning style

How to decide on daycare, nursery school or preschool

River Leone Forni von Stoddard attends a home daycare program, along with a separate preschool center. 

Selecting the right childcare for your little one can feel overwhelming. What is the difference between daycare, nursery school and preschool, anyway?

As you begin your search, consider your child's age and needs to meet the level of care and programming required. Here is a breakdown of the most important things to consider:

Daycare centers provide staff and structure like a classroom. The size and location of a center may make a difference for your child. A daycare center may have larger staff-to-student ratio than home-based site and provide learning centers, story time and snacks or meals. Daycare in a home may be less structured than those in centers and provide more individualized time with fewer children. 

Whichever location you chose, be sure the provider is licensed and insured. A license does not guarantee quality of care but ensures a level of oversight by a state or county agency and staff training. At minimum, daycare providers should be certified in child/infant CPR and first aid and undergo a background check (including family members for in-home day care providers).

Isabelle Dichiara of LaGrangeville, NY, narrowed her choice for her three boys by researching options.

"I had no idea whether I wanted a daycare near home or work, a center or a private home or even a nanny," she said. "I contacted my local childcare council to talk through my options, locations, types, etc. I used that list to call about space and price and make visits."

The terms’ nursery school’ and ‘preschool’ are often used interchangeably. While both provide structured learning environments for children ages 3-5, some nursery schools also offer infant care for younger siblings. The teaching staff should be certified or at least trained in teaching methods and early childhood development and have proven experience working with children in an educational setting.

For now, freelance photographer Silvia Forni of Red Hook , NY, said her son, River, 21 months, attends both a home daycare and preschool. "We are still in between, but probably will choose the preschool," she said. "We like the idea that it's more structured; they do draw time, music, crafts, and it is bigger."

READ MORE: Helping young children reach developmental milestones

Select a regulated school that fits your child. Relying on word-of-mouth recommendations from other parents is helpful, but doesn't always reflect appropriate accreditation. Check for a license through the New York database (see box), and visit the school while class is in session to observe staff interactions and the overall classroom management. You may also see how discipline is handled, the types of snacks or meals provided and if the school's philosophy aligns with your child's needs.

Sharon Laidlaw of Glenford, NY, carefully onsidered what she thought would be the best fit for the personality and learning style of her son, Lucas, now 11.
    "His first program (ages 3-4) was very play based and (included) lots of time outside," she said. "It was important to us that there was an emphasis on hands-on learning and plenty of time (for him) to explore materials at his own pace."

For more information on daycare center, nursery schools and preschools in New York State, visit:

NYS Division of Childcare Services

NYS Education Department

Safety and security are of paramount concern. Bring a checklist of questions during your visit to a center or school. Ask what security measures are in place for drop off and pickup, if there are classroom cameras and if procedures for fire/safety drills are documented.

New York State has specific regulations regarding staffing, so ask for the school's staff-to-child ratio to ensure that your child has appropriate supervision. Also find out how providers communicate with parents during the day. For instance, will they chat with you daily during pickup, or use a secure chat service to send you text messages or photos of your child?

Consider how the school pace is maintained and organized. Disorganized piles of materials, dirty bathrooms and a lack of childproofing can be big safety concerns. Alison McBride of Stone Ridge is a mother of four who researched options for her children's daycare. "I think it's important to find a daycare that appears clean and safe for your child," she said. "Happiness of the staff when you go for a tour (is also important) and ask if there's a high turnover rate for staff. Many places look really nice but if they are constantly getting new staff something isn't right. Your kids deserve to be around happy people."

Enrollment cost can vary greatly. Private daycares may charge an hourly or daily rate while daycare centers and preschools typically charge a flat tuition rate. If you require before- and after-hour care, or snacks or meals, an additional cost may be required. While the fee may not necessarily reflect the quality of care, staff attitudes and a clean, well-cared for environment can be key to how well your child thrives.

Roxanne Ferber is a mom, freelance writer and owner of The WhateverMom blog.