Do I send my 3-year-old to preschool or keep them in childcare?


Maybe your three-year-old is happy at childcare but you’re thinking its time for them to graduate to preschool. Or, maybe they’ve spent their first years at home, and now you’re scouting around for a good setting to send them to. Either way, you’re probably wondering what the benefits of a preschool education are and whether you should send your child to a dedicated preschool or if they can get the same learning at a childcare centre. Here’s what you need to know to make the best decision.

The benefits of a good preschool education are huge!

Preschool education has enormous benefits. A recent major study in Europe tracked over 3000 children from the age of three to seven years and found that a good learning program the two years before a child starts school improved their cognitive skills, social behaviour, independence and concentration.

This study also importantly found that these learning benefits could be gained from either a preschool or the preschool program at a childcare centre. The most important factor was the quality of the setting. The best settings were those that had:

Practical considerations

In addition to the quality of the setting, there are other important practical considerations to help decide whether a preschool or childcare setting is best for your child. Childcare centres often suit parents who work because they are open for 10 or more hours per day, five days per week and take children from six weeks to under six years. In comparison the opening hours of preschools are shorter, operating 9am-3pm during the school terms only. Many also work on a half-day system and children attend 9am-12pm.

These services only accept children aged three to under six years.

Childcare centres charge higher fees than preschools. The cost usually falls into the $80 – $140 per day range. The rate depends on factors such as the provision of meals, nappies, and the location of the service. Preschool fees are lower, generally because of the shorter opening hours, government funding, and also because personal resources such as food and drinks are provided by the parents.

Government preschools are available in some states and are free, non-government preschool fees generally begin from about $300 per term.

Is the timing right?

Children benefit best from preschool programs when they are ready for it. Many children are ready at around the age of three, but many aren’t. One sign to look for is whether they are able to participate in a daily, structured, educational program with other children. If your child is still very clingy, if they are not toilet trained, or if they are not ready to learn simple literacy, numeracy, science and art skills then it may not be time. The director at the setting will be able to help you to decide.

My own work in this area also shows that children are not necessarily disadvantaged if they don’t attend a formal education setting in the years leading up to school. That is as long as they have regular opportunities for the learning that these setting provide. That is regular time to play with a range of children their age, consistent opportunities to problem solve and, regular involvement in literacy and numeracy activities.

The best next step

Childcare or preschool may both be strong options in your area so the best next step is to focus on the specific providers close to you. The best program is the one that fits your child’s needs, your lifestyle and your budget. Ask yourself: which classroom is more inviting/warmer? In which ones can you see children engaged in maths and literacy learning? Where do the children seem happier? The more on-site investigating you do, the more likely you’ll find the perfect preschool (or will it be childcare centre?) match for your little one.