As your kid gets older, childcare gets only slightly easier to navigate. Yes, there are more available options for older kids, but there’s also the added stress of finding before-school and after-school care if your work day is longer than the typical 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. school day. So, sorry parents of older-but-still-young-children—you’re not out of the woods, yet.
Of course, having a nanny/nanny share, another in-home provider (like a grandparent or au pair), or an in-home daycare center are all still viable options for preschool- or kindergarten-aged children. But for parents seeking an early school setting, there’s a lot of choices and nearly every type of program is different.
Finding a program where your baby can start as an infant and grow into is ideal, but it’s not always feasible. As your baby grows and develops, his or her needs may change, and as your career grows and develops, your needs for childcare might change. So, don’t be afraid to browse around if you’re not totally satisfied with where your child is now—there are great programs all around.
Trying to find the perfect school is basically like searching for a unicorn. Only the lucky few will find a school for their kids that hits EVERY checkmark, but the good news is that if you prioritize your needs, finding a school you love is easier than you think.
For most families, dates and hours of operation, along with tuition costs, take precedence. Having to scramble for alternate childcare for long, frequent school breaks is not really something that anyone wants to do. And, since most of these programs are touted as school days, many of them have a typical 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule (or similar). Some offer in-house before-care and after-care with regular tuition, while others offer those options for an added cost.
In order to help you make the choice best for your family, we’re breaking down a few of the more popular daycare, preschool, and kindergarten school options. Read on for the basics of what parents should know!
Traditional daycares are usually found most everywhere at a variety of tuition ranges—they can be local or franchise-based (like Kindercare or Bright Horizons). All certified childcare centers have to follow state regulations and mandates, so things like teacher/student ratio, health regulations, and other basics might be similar across the board. Here’s what else you need to know about traditional daycare:
- Their requirements for teacher education levels might vary–teachers may or may not have educational degrees or extended experience with a certain age-group of students.
- Usually, traditional daycares are based more on free-play with a variety of age-appropriate resources. They may be few teacher-directed activities through the day or the program may be more child-centered.
- As the children get older, there’s often more of a curriculum put in place, and many centers offer full pre-school or kindergarten curriculums. It’s best to look into the details of each center in order to understand what the norm is there.
Academically-Focused Private Programs
Academically-focused programs (like The Goddard School, The Gardner School, or Primrose) are usually largely teacher-directed. There’s a variety of activities planned throughout the day, and as children get older, a more thorough lesson plan is typically implemented. These schools promote education at every level and tend to use child development principles to dictate learning standards within the classroom.
- They often have an in-depth age-appropriate curriculum that integrates reading, math, science, and pre-writing.
- Many also offer specials, like Spanish, computers, yoga, sports, and others for either an added cost or as a part of the daily curriculum.
- Some centers offer their own Kindergarten programs based on local need or parent-demand, and they usually align with state learning standards and use popular Kindergarten curriculum.
Many parents (and children) love these structured environments, while others choose centers that offer more open play.
Philosophy-based programs tend to vary greatly depending on which philosophy the schools follow. The most popular philosophy seems to be Montessori, and others gaining more attention lately are Reggio Emilia and Waldorf. Wondering how these programs differ? Read on.
- Montessori programs are based on constructivist learning, or a discovery approach, where children are said to learn from manipulating materials and doing, rather than being instructed. They value independence and include nature and the outdoors as a part of their classroom.
- Reggio Emilia programs are similarly based on constructivist learning and are very child-centered and student-directed. They have a focus on community and self-expression through a variety of methods.
- The Waldorf approach appreciates imagination as a major tool that facilitates children’s’ learning and strives to integrate the child’s whole self in the learning process—intellectual, practical, and artistic.
Once kids get to kindergarten-age, many of these centers do use state learning standards as a benchmark in addition to their own philosophy-based standards.
Because these sorts of programs are not trademarked names but particular philosophies, you do want to check and make sure the schools you’re looking at are accredited by each philosophy’s main association (for instance, accurate Montessori programs are accredited by the American Montessori Association).
Public School District Programs
Of course, your local public school is always an option if you live in a district which focuses on the things you value (some people prefer high-academic areas, while others prefer districts that prioritize athletics or arts and music programs).
Most districts offer kindergarten for town residents, while others are also starting to offer preschool programs. Depending on the funding in your area, your preschool and kindergarten program may be either half-day or full day—but a lot of them now offer an extended day or before- and after-care for an additional fee.
In recent years, the pressure put on schools to perform to a certain level on standardized tests has reached the news, and this often results in a lot of schools and teachers choosing to teach certain things in a certain way. Looking into your district and seeing how they approach early education and how they maintain standards will give you more insight into what your child will be doing in school.
Park District Programs
If you live in a larger city or town, your local park district likely has its own childcare options, including preschool. Depending on the needs of your community, you might be surprised to find both half-day and full-day options, as well as before- and -after-school care for those with kids in public or other schools. Many times, park districts will offer before- and after-care right in your child’s public school, so as to offer convenience for parents and continuity for kids. Win, win.
Local Nursery Schools
If your town has a nursery school, ask around about it. Most nursery schools been around the town for years and are adored by local parents. These programs are usually half-day but offer a lot of love and community. If you’re looking for a small, sacred learning space for your little one, this might be your best bet.
Many progressive areas also offer co-op type learning centers where parents “work” in the classroom for a certain amount of hours each month and also play a large role in how the school is run.
Botanic Gardens/Nature Schools
The Chicago Botanic Garden has its own Nature Preschool and many other botanical gardens and parks programs do, too. If you want your child to really be one with the outdoors, check out if there are any nature schools in your area.
- Many programs start kids as young as 2-years-old, but of course, start ages and program length is all dependent on each program.
- Preschool programs in nature schools can be either half-day or full day, depending on your particular school and community.
- You’ll have to dress your kids for the weather every day, as they’ll likely spend a lot of time outdoors, but really, can you think of a better classroom?
If your family is religious, check in with your local church or temple to see if they offer any schooling programs. Many have their own private schools attached, while others offer smaller daycare or nursery school programs.
Some religious centers offer preschools only, while many of them go right through high school. If religion is a large part of your life, or you like the idea of a private, religiously-based program, then this is a good option—especially if you are looking for a place your child can grow through.