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Why What We Call Child Care Matters

day care

Study after study has demonstrated the immediate and lasting benefits of formal early childhood education on the social, physical, and cognitive health of children who are enrolled in pre-primary programs. And more children than ever before are participating in preschool programs, day care, child care, and summer camps: The number of children four years and younger in these programs rose by greater than 10% from 1990 to 2012, while nearly 90% of five-year-old children were in preschool or day care programs in 2017. Formal care in the earliest years of childhood is prevalent and effective. But what do we call it, and does it matter?

“Day Care”

For many, the most common and ubiquitous term for early childhood education programs like the ones described above is “day care.” For most who design, administer, and execute the programs – professionals in early childhood development – the term “day care” is not preferred. In the simplest terms, the phrase applies the care to the “day” rather than the child; in greater detail: it fails to describe the objectives, purpose, and complexity of a well-designed and well-executed early childhood education program.

Caring for the Child, Not the Day

While millions of young children are cared for and enriched by programs outside the home every day, the terminology doesn’t match the reality. A “day care” can sound like a simple deposit, a longer and more structured bout of babysitting in which children are cared for, monitored, fed, and protected, but not engaged, stimulated, or enriched. And in a quality public or private preschool program, nothing could be further from the truth. Among the benefits of preschool are the same benefits of daycare: cognitive and literacy initiatives; structured engagement with peers and staff; professionally designed activities intended to gauge and push a child’s fine and gross motor skills, her cognitive and social skills, and the foundational skills that she will depend on in kindergarten and beyond.

Inconsistent Quality

The phrase “day care” and its misaligned context have been perpetuated by real inconsistency in the quality of programs available to families: not all child care programs are the same. But most of them at least have as their goal a result that serves the child and the family well beyond the “day” that “day care” would suggest is served.

The Reach of Good Child Care

“Day care” also reinforces the time that a child is not at home. It marginalizes the program and its impact and, therefore, marginalizes what can be a large portion of the child’s life. In fact, an appropriate and affirming phrase should emphasize the objective foundations being built in the child’s social and cognitive life.

Child Care, Preschool, and Early Childhood Education

The best early childhood education programs move well beyond the “day” in both their objectives and their reach. These programs often educate families, provide enrichment and socialization for children and families even away from the program, and create new links between children and parents, children and peers, and children and teachers that will persist long after the child has moved on.

To understand and respect the ways in which good early childhood education programs educate the whole child rather than just a series of days in a week, acknowledge the programs for what they are: child care; preschool; early childhood education programs, and not for what they seem most superficially to do: day care.