Preschool education in Canada
The Our Kids guide to preschool and daycare programs
Preschool is geared for kids who are too young to attend kindergarten. Most kids who attend a preschool program are between 3 and 5 years old. Some programs, though, accept children as young as 1 or 2.
Preschool is sometimes called “daycare,” “childcare,” or “nursery school.” Often, though, it differs from these other options in that it focuses more on early learning and academics. Preschools aim to prepare children for the school years: elementary school and beyond.
Types of preschool programs
There are many different types of preschool programs and approaches in Canada. This includes academic, play-based, Montessori, Waldorf, Reggio Emilia, community-based, and faith-based programs.
- Play-based: These programs (sometimes called "play schools") aim to develop social skills and a love of attending school through minimally structured activities.
- Academic: These programs are the most structured of the different types. They place a strong emphasis on early learning and school readiness.
- Montessori: These programs have a child-centred approach: kids have lots of freedom to choose their own tasks and activities (with teacher guidance). They also focus a lot on concrete learning.
- Waldorf: These programs offer plenty of practical, hands-on activities. They also stress arts and crafts, creativity, and imaginative and play-based learning.
- Reggio Emilia: These programs have a co-constructed curriculum: children and teachers choose tasks and activities together. They also have lots of open-ended projects that require critical and creative thinking.
- Community-based: These are local programs. They’re normally cooperative, meaning parents volunteer as teachers’ aides on a regular basis (usually at least once a week).
- Religious-affiliated: These programs are created and run by religious institutions or schools, and are faith-based. They include Christian, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic preschools.
Below, we compare play-based, academic, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf preschool programs side-by-side, in terms of specific criteria. Using our table, you can learn the similarities and differences between these preschool types (click on text inside the chart to get more detailed information).
(24% of schools)
(36% of schools)
(30% of schools)
(8% of schools)
(2% of schools)
||Socialization, pre-academic skills
||Independence, confidence, and a love of learning
||Curiosity, problem-solving skills
||Socialization, practical, and pre-academic skills
||Whole-class lessons and activities
||Individual and group tasks
||Group and individual activities
||Concrete materials and manipulative puzzles
||Project-specific, arts and crafts
||Natural and practical, and arts and crafts
||Observe and guide
||Give direct lessons
||Observe and guide
||Participate and guide
||Mentor and guide
|Arts and crafts
|Emphasis on traditional academics*
|May be suited for young children who...
- Do well in a highly social environment
- Have lots of energy and prefer being active to sitting
- Do well in a noisy environment, with lots of activities taking place at once
- Do well in a structured environment
- Can sit still and follow the course of a lesson
- Have demonstrated an early love of academic learning
- Enjoy work on their own
- Enjoy working in small groups
- Have good attention spans
- Can take directions
- Are good academically
- Have good social skills
- Love hands-on exploring and problem solving
- Work well in groups
- Have a creative and/or artistic bent
- Are highly imaginative and have creative potential
- Enjoy playing in groups
- Love nature
|*This does not reflect "academic quality" or "academic rigour"—rather, it shows the emphasis placed on early math and reading skills relative to other developmental goals.
Preschool pros and cons
Preschool can be a great option for many families. It has numerous benefits. It also, though, raises some potential concerns. Note, the pros and cons of preschool will vary depending on the type of program, the approach used, school policies, teachers, and more.
- Early learning: There are many well-known advantages of early childhood education (preschool), including inspiring a love of learning.
- Teachers: Teachers often have training in early childhood education. Many are Registered Early Childhood Educators (RECE).
- Social interaction: Your child will have lots of opportunities to interact with kids of different ages. This can help them learn, grow, and mature.
- Activities: Your child will be exposed to a wide range of activities, including art, music, dance, and sports.
- Structure: A daily routine can help your child thrive.
- Elementary admissions: Preschools can help your child gain admission to elementary programs. Many elementary and primary schools look favourably on a preschool education.
- Easier transitions: Exposure to a regular routine early on makes for a smoother transition to formal schooling later on.
- Lack of one-on-one time: Although preschools tend to have low teacher-to-student ratios, it isn’t one-to-one. And the importance of one-on-one time for some kids cannot be disputed.
- Learning too early: Some preschools, it’s claimed, force kids to learn too early. This is a special concern with academic preschools. Learning subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, before one’s ready, can lead to frustration and interfere with a love of learning.
- Separation anxiety: Many young children find it difficult to separate from their parents. Some may need more personal attention and may not be ready to attend school.
- Less social opportunities: Some preschools, especially academic ones, have less social activities. These programs also have less play-based learning.
- Too rigid: Many preschools don’t allow children to attend when they’re sick. Some are also closed during the summer and statutory holidays and may not offer before- or after-care programs.
- Ineffectiveness: Some critics argue that preschool programs have little, if any, impact on academic success. Whatever advantages preschool kids have over those without a preschool education, it’s claimed, normally disappear after grade 2.
Most preschools have similar educational goals. They aim to foster age-appropriate growth and learning, and challenge and stimulate children. They also aim to prepare kids for the school years.
While they vary in their teaching and learning approaches, most preschools cover similar ground. They normally teach a number of core subjects and skills.
Subjects and skills taught (among others):
- Creative arts
- Social skills
Preschools use a number of different pedagogical approaches. Many preschools use more than one of these approaches, or a combination of several.
- Play-based learning: learning is built around uninterrupted blocks of play time (common in toddler preschool).
- Curriculum-based learning: learning is focused on academic skills (common in academic preschool).
- Theme-based learning: learning is based on weekly themes (e.g., animals, colours, seasons, etc.).
- Experiential learning: learning is based on practical outcomes both in and outside of class.
To learn more, read our preschool curriculum guide.
Preschool isn’t mandatory in any province in Canada. Moreover, the government provides little funding for preschool, so you’ll likely need to choose a private program.
Luckily, private preschools are normally quite affordable. They’re usually on the lower side of private school tuition. Most charge between $450 and $1300 a month or between $5400 and $16,200 a year. Their pricing is similar to daycare and childcare centres, as well as nursery school.
There are several sources of funding and aid for preschools. The main ones are school subsidies (needs-based financial aid), support from community organizations, and sibling discounts.
To learn more, read our preschool costs guide.
Choosing the best preschool
Assuming your child is ready for preschool, you’ll want to find the right one. You should look at several preschools and choose one that’s the right fit for you, your family, and your child. Luckily, there are private preschools in Ontario, BC, Alberta, and Quebec. This includes the cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Mississauga, Oakville, Vaughan, Scarborough, and Brampton. Find a preschool near you.
Selecting the best preschool involves looking at both general and individual factors. General factors concern a school’s overall suitability, for any child. Individual factors are specific to you and your child. They relate to your family’s beliefs, values, and needs.
General factors to consider
- Licensing: Is it licensed or accredited by an appropriate federal or provincial institution in Canada?
- Safety: Does it have a safe environment with proper supervision? What policies are in place and precautions used to ensure your child’s well being?
- Discipline: How does it deal behaviour issues? Are kids disciplined in any ways, and if so, how?
- Class size and teacher-to-student ratio: How large is the class? What is the staff-to-child ratio?
- Hours: What time does preschool begin and end? Are before- and/or after-care offered? Is preschool open during holidays and/or summers?
- Communication: Is there an open line of communication with directors and staff? Who do you go to with your questions or concerns?
Individual factors to consider
- Location: What city is it in? How close to you is it? Is it easily accessible by car and public transportation?
- Cost: How much does it cost? What exactly does this cost include? Are financial aid, subsidies, or sibling discounts offered?
- Values: What are the main values it aims to promote? How does it aim to promote these values?
- Environment: What type of learning environment is used? Are their different areas or stations of the classroom? What kinds of materials are in the classroom?
- Teaching approach: What is the teaching and learning approach? Does it offer more academic or play-based learning (or an equal combination of both)?
- Specialized learning: Does it offer individualized learning? Does it tailor teaching to specific students, where appropriate? Or is teaching more of a “one-size-fits-all” approach?
- Special needs: Does it offer support for kids with special needs? If so, which special needs, and how does it support these children?
It's important to select the right preschool for your child. Luckily, there are lots of great resources to help you in your search.
- Choosing school guides: To learn more about choosing private schools (including a private preschool), check out our choosing guide on OurKids.net. If you’re interested in Montessori preschools, check out our Montessori choosing guide.
- Private school expos: Private school expos are a great way to learn about the best preschools near you. We have annual expos across Canada: in Toronto, Halton-peel, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary. At these expos, you can meet with lots of private preschools, ask them questions, and learn whether they might be right for your child.
- Preschool guides: To learn more about different kinds of private schools and preschools, check out our comprehensive guides. Our guides to Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia schools cover these school approaches in great depth. We also have articles on Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia preschools. Finally, check out our comparisons of Montessori to Waldorf, Waldorf to Reggio Emilia, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, academic to play-based, Montessori to play-based, and Montessori to academic preschools.
- Parent discussion forum: Another great resource in your preschool search is the Our Kids parent discussion forum. The forum is the ideal place to discuss preschools (and other types of schools) with other parents, education experts, and school officials.