Daycares, Preschools, and Pre-K: the Difference

The difference between preschools and daycares has become increasingly blurred. There is now a lot of similarities in programing, structure, and childcare. Many preschools mirror play based learning typical of daycares. Vice versa, daycares now offer more educational structure. Throw Pre-K into the mix, and it can get even more confusing - especially in Park Slope where early child care centers line the city’s blocks.

Here, PSP breaks it down for you.

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Need help navigating the early childhood education process? We've got you covered with the PSP Guide to Finding and Securing Daycare and the PSP Guide to Finding and Securing Preschool, which feature application advice, tips compiled from PSP members, and much more—AND they're available to members at a reduced price. Check out our Guides Library HERE


This is private schooling for kids younger than school age. The age depends on the school. Some start as young as 2, some end as late as kindergarten. In private schools that are solely preschools and not connected to other schools, kindergarten can be defined as part of preschool. In private schools that have elementary and/or higher grades, kindergarten, and even Pre-K, is sometimes seen as part of elementary school.

Private preschool (theoretically) exists solely for the purpose of educating children, and not for day care purposes. Some preschools have only half day, and some end at 3 pm (like an elementary school) and some have both half and full days, but only offer half day for the youngest children. Some schools also offer an "extended day" but that is considered after school care and not part of the pre-school program.

Looking for reviews of local preschools? 

Find PSP member reviews of local preschools here >



Daycare is so very similar to preschool in what children do and learn, except that daycare (theoretically) exists primarily to serve the needs of working parents, and has hours that will accommodate someone who needs to work full time. Again, you can find a half day program for day care, and you can also go just a few days a week, but there are people who use daycare to have the children cared for from 8 or 9 am to 5 or 6 pm.

Day cares can have children as young as a few months old, or as old as 4 or 5 years old, but kids typically stop attending day care when they are old enough for a kindergarten in elementary school. (Or sometimes pre-k these days.)

Curricula at day cares tend to be very similar to preschool. Obviously, different schools have different learning philosophies, but that's true of the difference between pre schools in general, not between pre-schools as a group and day cares as a group. Some daycares have fewer activities because the kids are younger and don't need the same kind of interactions and structured play.  (This can be seen positively or negatively depending on what you're looking for.)

Find PSP member reviews of local daycare providers here >

and reviews of daycares for under 1s here >



The state started subsidizing public pre-K a few years ago, for 4 year olds. These exist mostly in public schools, but a few daycares and preschools do get public money (and supposedly, more training) to operate pre-K programs, half day.

The pre-Ks in public schools that are funded by the state are only for 4 year olds. There is a program, funded differently, for 3 year olds, but it is very rare and only for severely "at risk" kids.

The main public pre-K program is a half day program (but that is changing as well in some schools). Some schools find ways to subsidize it to stretch it into a full day program, and some schools have an "inclusion class" (also called a CTT class) which is 40 percent special needs and 60 percent regular education. Inclusion classes are full day.

Some private schools have noticed the popularity of the public pre-K programs and have started to name their pre-school programs "pre-K” as well! This is fine, when you're talking about 4 year olds, but now the term "pre-k" is being applied to kids as young as 2, which some consider weird.

Obviously, the big difference between public and private pre-K is that public pre-k is free and private pre-K costs money. The exception to this is, if a private school is getting state funds to operate a pre-K, that pre-K program is also free. Some private schools have public money for half day pre-k, and then ask parents to pay for an afternoon session to add on to that.

Find PSP member reviews for Pre-K programs here > 


What are the pros and cons?




  • more expensive
  • less flexible
  • ends in afternoon, with extended stay options
  • no food option, packed lunches
  • more holidays and school closings


  • more stimulating
  • early childhood education




  • longer hours
  • more flexibility


  • children can outgrow the space


What PSP members say:


Daycare better suits full time parents:

“For us, I felt that preschool wouldn't offer anything better then what are daycare does and the logistics for two working parents is just to crazy. I'm a ftm so no idea what it use to be like, but the difference between daycare and preschool seems to have blurred a lot. As well, our daycare has a Pre-K that is getting good reviews from our friends in the program. For us, it made sense to keep her there through Pre-K. Our daughter loves all the caregivers there and the center is the perfect fit for us, so why change?”


Preschool offers more space:

“I went thru this when our LO was turning 2. we were at a daycare we absolutely loved in central slope. But as she hit 2 we found that she needed just a bigger space, she was clearly outgrowing the loving home daycare which we loved, mostly physically. We loved the mixed ages and her learning from older kids and learning how to take care of the little ones. We ended up moving her to a 2's program in north slope and we couldn't be happier with them. she learned to potty on her own with the help of her friends and teachers. it was a great environment to then transition to a more structured class by age 3 and 4 (gardening together, learning about the world around them - science, also now transportation, and also their abc's and 123's)
I think at age 2 it can go either way. both are great options for your LO more often than not. 3s is when it starts to become clear a more structured program is needed than daycare. Best of luck!”


Preschool is more stimulating - but with other cons:

“We just transitioned my daughter at 3.5 from daycare to preschool. There have been highs and lows. I definitely feel like she is more stimulated and that the staff have a passion for early childhood education - many of the activities are the same (art, taking walks, block play) but how they process things with the kids is very different - what do you predict, what did you notice, etc.
I also feel like me daughter has really embraced that she goes to "school"  now and I don't think she would have felt that at daycare even when she transitioned to their pre-K program.
The cons have been exactly what you state: packing lunch, a lot more holidays and school closings,  and "after school" - this has been the biggest issue for us as my daughter is the only one from her class that does afterschool so after watching all the other kids get picked up by their caregivers she goes alone to a bigger room with lots of kids she doesn't know! It's been really hard on her (and us). we're giving it a few more weeks and then may decide to just hire a sitter who can pick her up.
So in short you are right to be thinking about all these factors! given that your son is only 2 you may want to do another year of daycare and then consider school at that point.”


And for another parent, afterschool is the favorite part of the day:

“Our daughter is one of the oldest in her class (early March birthday) and in an in-home 2-5yo program last year, which she started in Sept. 2014 at age 2. For this year, she didn't want to keep her in a place where she'd be one of the oldest kids, full stop. The small daycare she attended last year just grouped her with the oldest kids -- so this year would have been a repeat of every lesson for her (although we did appreciate their flexibility in doing that). And all her buddies would have moved on. Plus, in our experience (and this may not be true for all, just what we found), some of the daycares had more "academic" curriculums for the older classes, as opposed to more playbased, development focused curriculums. There seemed to be differences in terms of prep and programs in some places that had teachers accustomed to smaller children vs those where everyone focused on preschoolers.
She's at preschool this year, and we couldn't be happier. Yes, it's a preschool program that ends at 3pm, but the afterschool time is one of her favorite times of day (interracting with older kids, and unfettered gym time). Also we've found the teachers just aces in dealing with some of the emotional and behavioral stuff that comes with the age, and communicating about it, more than last year's daycare staff ever were. And it's much more play based and developmentally based, versus purely academic, which we love.
This could very well just be our experience last year, I'm not saying other daycares would be similar, but that's our experience.”


It varies from program to program:

“1) there is a lot of crossover between daycare and preschool
2) one of the main differences is the level of education of the staff (ie in preschool most people have master's degrees), which she points out doesn't necessarily mean they are better educators (not all masters programs are great, experience can be better than formal education sometimes...)
3) the choice should be more about the program itself than whether it is classified as a daycare or preschool (ie the types of activities they do, how it is structured, if it is loving, etc).”


Aaaand it varies from kid to kid:

“My advice would be that if you like the daycare leave your son in it for the 2s year, and assess where he is at next fall/winter when you would have to start applying for 3s programs. It somewhat depends on your son.
We just started my almost 3.5 year old in preschool this year. We actually have a preschool that is open a lot of days schools are closed, and they provide food, but it is still more of a pain than the daycare was. And more expensive. I do not think he would have gotten enough out of it beyond what he got at daycare to make it worth it last year. This year - definitely worth it. He's just making leaps and bounds in terms of talking about letters and letter sounds, asking questions, explaining the world to us. It has been great. And he was ready to go to school - he had been asking us when he would get to go to school for months beforehand, and is very proud now that he goes to school and not daycare.
He does after school. At his preschool, there are a few kids from his class and a few kids from another class together in after school. I think having new, older kids in after school has been good, but he does have continuity with some kids from his class. It would probably be harder if he didn't have that.
Upshot - I wouldn't stress it for 2s if it isn't a convenient change. Consider it for the next year based on where your son is.”


It can be trickier to balance with two children:

“Looks like you already got some great advice and my point of view is already represented (kept in day care until he just turned 4 years old in June, then switched to a fun summer camp, then to public preK. Very happy with all). Evaluating each program regardless of what kind of care it is sounds really smart. The only thing I'll add is that I have one kid in preK and one in day care (she¹s turning 1) and the school schedule quite frankly SUCKS!!!! :) Working and parenting and trying to find balance is such a challenge (especially now with two kids) that I think if you find a day care you really like, the convenience and flexibility (and lower cost!) is a huge factor worth giving a lot of weight to. For example, back when we only had [my son] and his daycare was always open, when my husband and I could take off of work together and keep him in daycare, we’d go on great “free babysitting” day time adventures and that really added a great dimension to The Crazy Life. Nowadays we struggle to figure out who can stay home, or who can watch him for all the many, many closures. We don¹t get any of those precious freebies anymore!"


Figure out what's right for you:

“Full day preK is the same as K and all other grades - generally 8:20-2:40, with paid aftercare programs until 6 either at the school or a local after school (for example, when our daughter did prek at 118 beansprouts picked up & she went there until 6; now at PS107 she has after school until 6 right at the school. Every school is different - PS118 started at onsite program halfway through last year which is great too! At every public school there is free breakfast for every child from prek on which means you can drop off your child as early as 7:45 if necessary.
As someone whose daughter was in a great daycare, then fabulous preschool 3s program, (only because our daycare was working out a location kink for preschool ages & we didn't know in time that she could have stayed), then public preK in one place and K in another, I can say the hours, coverage, consistency of getting to stay in ones' daycare place - if the program for preschool ages feels right to you! It is something I wish I could have done!”


Further Reading:


The PSP Guide to Finding and Securing Daycare

To Red-Shirt or Not? Includes updates from 2013 policy change [Updated 2015]

New York Magazine: What NYC Parents Need to Know About Universal Pre-K