If you’re just starting the search for daycare or preschool for your child, you may be wondering about the differences between center-based and home-based facilities. Childcare centers are generally larger schools with dedicated space and a store-front, while home-based providers care for a smaller group of children out of their own homes. In most states, you can tell one facility type from the other not only visually upon a visit, but also by its license type.
Deciding which type of facility is a better fit for your family will depend on a variety of factors, including the social and learning environment, the curriculum, cost, and convenience. Read along as we discuss some of the key considerations.
Center-based and home-based schools can differ greatly in their social environment, which will affect who your child interacts with, the type of attention they receive, and his or her relationship with the caregiver.
First, centers are typically much larger facilities which can be licensed to serve 30, 50, and even over 100 children. On the other hand, home-based schools are capped in their capacity to 14 children if they hold a large license, and 8 if they hold a small license (these figures are for California – similar rules apply in other states). As a result, the number of children that your child will be exposed to and socialize with will likely be much higher at a center than at a home-based school (though that depends on class sizes as well – see more below).
Since there are fewer children at home-based facilities, the caregiver is more likely to be flexible in incorporating specific caregiving preferences and can easily work with you in areas such as toilet training.
Note that the size of the school is a different consideration from the child-to-adult ratio. In California, both centers and home-based care must follow the 4:1 child-staff ratio for infants (defined as under the age of 2), but home-based providers can care for additional children above age 2 if they only have 3 infants, potentially increasing the allowed ratio to 6:1 in a mixed-age group. In centers, however, as children age, ratios can increase up to 12:1.
Additionally, centers often divide children into distinct age groups, meaning that your child will primarily interact with a group of similarly aged peers (although there are exceptions, such as mixed-age preschools). For example, at larger centers, there can be several gradations even for young children – young infants, older/crawling infants, toddlers, etc. Some parents view this as beneficial because this system makes it easier for providers to address age-specific needs of their children.
On the other hand, most home-based schools accept children from a wide age range and care for them together, from infants to preschoolers to even school-aged children (though some home-based providers do specialize in a specific age range, such as infants and toddlers or preschoolers). At a home-based school, your child will mingle with older and younger children and receive the benefits of mixed-age interactions (which is championed by the Montessori philosophy). Families with multiple children sometimes prefer home-based childcare because it enables parents to put siblings together.
Home-based schools also make it easier for children to nurture close relationships with their caregiver, since they typically remain with the same provider for several years. This may be more difficult in a center setting, in which caregivers switch as often as your child graduates from one group to the next.
Finally, most home-based school providers are in it for the long-run and wear both the “business owner” and “caregiver” hat. Many have years, even decades, of experience and plan to be around for years more – there is typically little turnover in the staff of a home-based school, providing continuity for children. On the other hand, staff at centers are employees and can experience high turnover rates. At centers, parents need to understand how experienced the staff are and to what degree there is turnover.
Centers and homes also vary in their look and feel. Many parents prefer home-based schools because they offer a comforting, intimate environment – a home away from home. The space may be smaller, but it may feel more natural for your child, especially for shy or younger ones. Centers tend to be more school-like, with larger play spaces, desks, and chairs. Because of this, some parents prefer to place their infants in home-based care, and transfer their children to centers as they grow older to prepare them for kindergarten.
In California (and in other states as well), licensing requirements say almost nothing regarding curriculum requirements for both centers and homes, only vaguely calling for a “variety of daily activities.” Therefore, the quality of the curriculum – the experiences, activities, and concepts that your child will encounter – will depend on the expertise of the staff in charge.
Larger schools often find it easier to support a rich and varied curriculum due to economies of scale. With more kids enrolled, centers can pool funds to purchase toys, learning aids, computers, soccer balls, musical instruments, art supplies, and the construction of spaces such as playgrounds. It also makes more economic sense to hire a Spanish or music teacher.
In regards to staff training, the licensing law poses higher formal training requirements for staff at centers than for home-based providers. For example, a regular teacher working in a childcare center is required to have completed 12 postsecondary semester units at an accredited college with six months of previous work experience in a childcare center, while California law only demands that home-based providers undergo fifteen hours of health-related training. The lower requirements for home-based caregivers, however, does not necessarily mean that home-based providers are any less qualified. Highly accomplished professionals sometimes choose to open their own childcare business in the comfort of their homes. A quick look at their resume can assure you that your child is in good hands.
On the other hand, a highly trained and resourceful home-based provider can also create an excellent curriculum, and furthermore, with a smaller group size, the provider has more flexibility to take children on outings to the park, zoo, or for afternoon strolls.
Regardless of the type of facility, it is up to the parents to research the quality of the programs by interviewing the staff, reviewing the daily schedule, and speaking with references.
Cost is often a major factor in choosing childcare, and you might be surprised that for children under four years old, home-based childcares are on average cheaper than childcare centers in most states. In 2014, the annual cost of infant care in California for centers was $4,073 more expensive than home-based care, and $946 more expensive for four-year old care, based on statistics from Child Care Aware for America.
Schedule and Convenience
Another major factor between the two types of childcare is the flexibility and reliability of their hours. If a home-based provider who is operating without an assistant (in California, a large home-based provider license requires an assistant) needs to take time off unexpectedly, parents must search for alternative care options. At a center, it is easier to replace an absent teacher with a substitute.
However, home-based providers may be able to offer more flexibility in their hours and drop-off/pick-up times. Some may even be available on nights and weekends if needed by parents, while centers typically stick to business hours.
Both centers and home-based providers have their strengths and weaknesses. You might find one type more compatible with your family and your child: the best way to find out is to visit a variety of providers. Each type of facility has many variations within its members and parents must do their due diligence to ensure they have found a high quality provider.