What's in a Name? Understanding Differences in Early Childhood Development

Unsure about the differences between the child care options available? Learn about the elements and importance of early childhood education.

Editor’s Note: Watch this webinar to explore what quality early education looks like and how to choose what’s best for your child.

Understanding the Different Types of Early Childhood Development Programs

In recent years, the child care options available to working parents have grown exponentially. Parents can choose from home care providers, nannies, non-profit programs, universal pre-k/state-funded programs, and a host of others. A variety of descriptors for these services abound, including childcare, day care, early care, or early childhood education. Have you ever wondered about the differences between these terms? Are they interchangeable? And what do they mean in terms of quality?

All options provide child care, but the term early childhood education denotes an additional educational component beyond basic care. Of course, high-quality care comes in many forms and under many descriptors. A program’s use of the term “early childhood education” doesn’t necessarily guarantee a high-quality program any more than “day care” implies a lack thereof.

Regardless of the terminology organizations use, high-quality early education begins with some basic elements that children need to thrive. Children need and deserve teachers who understand them and treat them with kindness and respect. Families should feel that they are partners in their children’s care, who are wholly involved in the decision-making process. The National Association of Young Children (NAEYC), a national organization that advocates for early childhood education, considers 10 areas of program standards when assessing and accrediting programs: relationships, curriculum, teaching, health and safety, assessment of child progress, teacher qualifications, family and community relationships, physical environment, and leadership management.

The Elements and Importance of Early Childhood Education

In evaluating early childhood education, it’s helpful to first consider what it is not. One current trend in early education is to apply the teaching methods and content designed for older elementary-age children to the early childhood classroom. Studies about early education and child development have found that this practice is not only ineffective, but actually damaging to young children’s growth and development. A high-quality early childhood education is based on a sound understanding of how young children learn – through engaging, hands-on experiences within a setting of comfort and trust.

NAEYC suggests that the early childhood curriculum should take into account all developmental areas, including social-emotional, physical, cognitive, and language development. A well-organized, written curriculum gives teachers the structure they need to ensure quality, while allowing flexibility to meet the individual needs of the children in their programs.

According to NAEYC, materials should be engaging and spark children’s interest to explore, ask questions, and discover. A high-quality curriculum offers many activities presented in a wide variety of ways. Through these activities, children learn more than merely the ABCs and 123s. They learn to solve problems, communicate effectively, and get along with others.

Early childhood programs can and should address academic topics, such as early math, literacy, and science. The challenge is to nurture these skill areas in ways that are respectful of how young children learn. When learning is addressed through a hands-on, playful, engaging curriculum with kind and nurturing teachers, children gain confidence and develop a lifelong love of learning. They enter kindergarten with “ready to learn” skills, such as being able to ask and answer questions, wait for a turn, follow directions, and work cooperatively with peers. Some children enter kindergarten already reading; others need more time. The point is that each child is offered a rich feast of learning opportunities and allowed to grow at his or her own pace.

All Early Education Programs Provide Care

Great early childhood development and care comes under many names and many auspices, in large and small centers, and in homes. The difference between a quality early education setting and a mediocre one is not in a name, the length of the day, whether it is for profit or nonprofit, or found in a home or center. Good programs recruit and retain good people, are committed to training and development, manage scarce resources well, and have a culture built on respect for children and families and all of those who care for them. High-quality programs understand that early education requires hands on, active, individualized learning and high expectations for every child as well as nurturing, sensitive, individualized care.

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Written by: Bright Horizons Education Team

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