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What is preschool?

What is preschool?

How preschool is different from daycare, childcare, nursery school, and kindergarten

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Quick summary

  • Preschools aim to prepare children for the school years. They’re usually geared for kids between the ages of three and five.

  • Preschool is sometimes called “daycare,” “childcare,” “nursery school,” or even “kindergarten.” Often, though, it differs from these other options in that it focuses more on early learning and academics.

  • Preschools tend to focus more on early learning and academics than daycare and childcare centres. They also sometimes have less unstructured play time than these other options.

  • “Preschool” and “nursery school” are sometimes used interchangeably. Some nursery schools focus more on play, though.

  • Preschool typically precedes kindergarten and, unlike kindergarten, is never mandatory (attendance at senior kindergarten is required in some provinces in Canada, such as Ontario).

 

In Canada, children under five years old aren’t required to go to school. This means most Canadian preschools (like nursery schools and daycares) are private. Some receive funding, though, and most are regulated by the government.

Preschool characteristics

Preschools aim to prepare your child for the school years. They promote children’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development. They lay the groundwork for a solid start in kindergarten, and for excelling in elementary school and beyond. Indeed, they have numerous benefits.

Some other basic features of preschool include the following:

  • Age range: Preschool is for young children prior to their school years. It’s usually for kids between the ages of three and six. Some preschools, though, admit younger children, including toddlers between one and two years old.
     
  • Level: Preschool, as you might expect, precedes grade school. In Canada, it usually also precedes kindergarten (both JK and SK). Preschool thus includes all education before compulsory schooling starts (usually between the ages of four or five). While this includes infant and toddler programs, most preschools are geared for children from the ages of three to six.
     
  • Location: Preschools are located in many different cities across Canada (and other countries), including TorontoCalgaryVancouver, and Edmonton. They can also be found in rural settings. And they’re run in many different kinds of buildings and environments, including homes, schools, universities, community centres, places of worship, and independent institutes.
     
  • Private and public: Most preschools are private, meaning they receive little, if any, funding from the government. Some are public, though, meaning they receive some government funding. Private preschools are governed by many of the same laws as public preschools. For instance, they must be licensed, have a student-to-teacher ratio of 5 to 1, and meet proper safety and health regulations.
     
  • Educational approaches: Preschools aim to promote your child’s development. They can have different approaches to early childhood development, as well educational and teaching philosophies. This means there are many different types of preschool, including play-basedacademicMontessoriWaldorf, and Reggio Emilialocal community (or cooperative), and religious preschools (including ChristianCatholicJewish, and Islamic preschools).

Preschool questions (read our in-depth answers)

 

Preschool versus other options

Preschool is sometimes called daycare or childcare. It’s also sometimes referred to as nursery school or even kindergarten. And it sometimes has a similar approach to these other options. Yet there are often differences between these alternatives.

The table below summarizes some of the main differences between preschool and daycare, childcare, nursery school, and kindergarten.

 

Preschool

Daycare

Childcare

Nursery school

Kindergarten

Age range

3-5 (or younger)

0-5

0-5

3-5 (or younger)

4-6

Mandatory

No

No

No

No

In some provinces

Licensed

Yes

Yes

Sometimes

Yes

Yes

RECE teachers

Yes

Usually

Sometimes

Usually

Sometimes

Open during statutory holidays

Not usually

Usually

Usually

Not usually

No

Open during summer

Not usually

Usually

Usually

Not usually

No

Offers before- and after childcare

Sometimes

Usually

Usually

Sometimes

No

Focus on early learning

Medium-high

Medium-low

Low-medium

Medium-high

Medium-high

Keep in mind, though, differences and similarities will depend on the particular preschool, daycare, and so on. This is because preschools (daycares, nurseries, etc.) vary in their aims, approaches, philosophies, and more.

Yet, as we’ve seen, there are some common differences and similarities between these options. For instance, preschool focuses more on early learning and academics than some of these other options. Below, we discuss in more detail the main differences and and similarities between preschool and the other options.

Preschool vs. daycare

Like preschool, daycare can refer to many different things. It can be a preschool, nursery school, childcare centre, or all three.

Most daycares are licensed by a government body, such as the Ontario Ministry of Education. This in accordance with the CCEYA (Child Care and Early Years ACT).

Preschool programs, though, tend to have more teachers with training in Early Childhood Education (ECE) than daycares, and more teachers who are Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECE). They also focus more on early learning and academics than daycare through a fairly intensive curriculum. And some have less unstructured play time than daycares.

Daycare, meanwhile, normally has plenty of “free-explore” or “free-play” time, some unstructured activities, and plenty of play-based learning. That said, many daycare centres, especially at the higher levels, provide some structured learning, focusing on academic skills and knowledge, such as readingwritingmath, numbers, and letters.  

Some daycare centres and programs provide longer hours than preschools. And some stay open for some holidays, school breaks, and the summer. Many preschools, though, have similar flexibility: they offer full-time programs, extended childcare, and summer enrollment.

Preschool vs. childcare

Childcare simply refers to any place where a child is cared for. This can mean a number of different things.

It may, for instance just involve one-on-one homecare provided by a parent, nanny, or someone else. Childcare may also be provided in an out-of-home setting. Here your child may simply be “looked after.”

Childcare can and often does, though, provide much more than basic babysitting. It often includes structured play time, with organized activities which allow kids to explore and learn. Many childcare centres also have some play-based learning. And some provide some sit-down learning. Typically, though, childcare providers focus less on early learning and cognitive development than preschool programs.

As Ellen Galinsky says, in The Preschool Years:

If a large opinion survey were conducted on the difference between schools and childcare, school-based programs would be described as more educationally focused, while childcare programs would be seen as more custodial.

Preschool vs. nursery school

Nursery school can refer to many things. It can be a preschool, daycare, kindergarten, or even all three. Nursery school is normally attended near the end of preschool (and so may be part of a preschool). It will thus often be for children from ages three to six.

Nursery schools often involve some combination of play, exploration, and learning. Typically, though, they focus more on play and less on learning than the average preschool. Like preschools and daycares, though, they have a wide range of aims, approaches, and philosophies.

Preschool vs. kindergarten

In Canada, formal schooling begins with kindergarten. Most children start at the junior kindergarten (JK) level, which is for those who turn four by December 31st of the school year. However, some start school at the senior kindergarten (SK) level, which is for those who turn five on this date. While JK is not mandatory in any province, some provinces require kids to attend SK (for instance, Ontario).

Preschool, on the other hand, is not normally considered part of the school years, at least by most provincial governments. Nor is it mandatory. While it often focuses somewhat on academics, like kindergarten, children aren’t required to attend it.

Also, sometimes preschool is more play-based and less academic than kindergarten. That said, some alternative preschools, such as Montessori, tend to be less play-based and more task- or academic-oriented (even compared to many kindergarten programs), although in an unconventional sense.

What's the best option for you?

In truth, there are many different approaches to preschool, daycare, childcare, nursery school, and kindergarten. What’s most important is to look at the particular aims, philosophies, teaching approaches, and more, of any preschool (nursery school, etc.), and decide whether it’s a good fit for your child. Luckily, in Canada, there are lots of great preschool options to choose from.

 

Answers to the question “What is preschool?” from educational consultants and school officials

“A preschool environment should provide a pleasurable mix of learning opportunities and play—a place where children’s curiosity is encouraged, and wonder and inquiry are integral aspects of the program. It has a broad range of activities, including interactive, motor, listening, and sensory experiences.” Joanne Foster, educational specialist, and co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence, Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids

“The essence of preschool is a loving, caring environment where young students learn and grow, not only from engaged adults, but from each other. Students are provided with every opportunity to develop at their optimal level by building on their previous experiences and by introducing them to new ideas and concepts. Children learn one step at a time through an age-appropriate program that is geared to the needs of the individual child.” Corina Gill, assistant head of lower school at Bayview Glen Independent School, in TorontoOntario

“Although preschools technically fall in the same category as daycare centres—they’re licensed and regulated by the same bodies—they typically have a more academic focus, and are for children ages two through five.” Lee Venditti, director of J. Addison, a Montessori school in MarkhamOntario

“The basic difference between preschool and daycare is that preschools are curriculum-based. They tend to follow a school schedule, whereas daycare is all about making the children happy, where the children play, have fun, nap, etc.” Marcel Pereira, director of Century Private School, a Montessori school, in Richmond HillOntario

“Preschool is the bridge between daycare or homecare and kindergarten. It’s an opportunity for students to be socialized in a warm, nurturing environment. It’s a place where the basic foundational building blocks of school, such as lining up, waiting your turn, sitting and listening, putting on your coat, and holding a pencil, are learned.” Vanessa Sjerven, teacher at Elmwood School (the early years program), in OttawaOntario

“One of a preschool program’s primary goals is to support the children in acquiring appropriate social skills and conflict resolution strategies when dealing with others. Learning to relate well with others is an important life skill that will support the child’s development and success both personally and professionally in the future.” Jennifer Deathe, head of admission at Waldorf Academy, a Waldorf school, in TorontoOntario

“By law, a licensed preschool must have teachers who are RECE (Registered Early Childhood Educators). The preschool teacher-to-student ratio must be 1-to-8 in accordance with the CCEYA (Child Care and Early Years ACT).” Nora Ibrahim, preschool teacher and IB PYP (Primary Years Program) coordinator at Académie de la Capitale, in OttawaOntario

 

 

 

 

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