Preschool vs Nursery

children in a preschool classroom

Your little one is already growing up and it’s time for them to attend a preschool or a nursery setting. But what does each one provide and is one better than the other. Does your child need to go to both?

Preschool is designed to prepare your child for school usually by learning through play. A nursery is a childcare setting for babies and toddlers. Let’s look at the difference between preschool and nursery in more detail to help you decide what’s right for your family.

What’s the main difference between preschool and nursery?

In the USA, nursery and/or daycare are typically catered to babies and young children up to age 5. Preschool is for children aged 4 -5, before they start kindergarten. You don’t hear the term nursery used much anymore in the USA, but when it is, the assumption is that it’s a place for babies and very young toddlers. 

In the UK and other countries, the terms nursery and preschool can be interchangeable for older children. Children are 3-4 years old when they attend preschool in the UK and it usually includes the year before school. Nurseries cater for babies and young children until they enter preschool and are often private, but not always.

However, at the risk of adding to the confusion, there are also nursery schools in the UK that are government funded centers. They cater to 2-4 year olds and function more like a preschool than a private nursery setting.  Across different countries, preschool and nursery settings all work to prepare children for school from ages 3-5.

What is preschool?

Preschool is an educational childcare setting designed to get children ready for school. They kickstart traditional learning, usually through play. Preschool takes place during the two years before a child starts their first year of school. Children will probably focus on counting, identifying letters and sounds as well as singing, exploring and playing games with others. It serves as a strong foundation for lifelong learning and assists a successful transition into school.

What age do children go to preschool?

Children go to preschool from age three or not long after. They tend to operate on a similar schedule to schools whereby children start preschool the August or September they are turning four. Preschools often run alongside the academic year.

How many hours do they go for?

The number of hours each child goes to preschool depends on each family’s choices and the preschool’s own set up. Some preschools offer morning or afternoon sessions, while others have full day sessions.

In some cases, parents will be able to choose their preferred days and sessions whereas other preschools will mandate children attend certain hours or days in order to go there. These hours might dictate the preschool you choose for your child too. For example, if you want your child to attend preschool for half days, you will need to select one that has that option.

There is no right or wrong choice here. It depends on what is best for each individual child and family, as well as your needs and budget.

preschoolers doing some cooking

What do children need to bring?

Children usually bring a backpack each day filled with:

  • spare clothes
  • water bottle
  • lunch bag or box with lunch (if needed)
  • medications
  • warm or hot weather clothes like sun hats or gloves
  • waterproof clothing
  • rain boots and/or indoor shoes
  • diaper changing supplies if needed
  • art supplies (varies by preschool)
  • nap supplies (varies by preschool)

Related Post: Preschool Checklist

Of course, it’s important to check the packing list from the preschool. Each one has their own procedures and processes and they might ask for children to bring different things. No matter where you send your child, make sure you label everything clearly. This way your child’s things are less likely to get lost.

Is it free?

Preschool is free in some countries around the world. For example, in the UK preschool or nursery is free for 15-30 hours per week during the school term time for children over 3. You can often tack on additional wrap around care hours, such as breakfast and tea clubs, at an additional cost.

In the USA preschool is not generally free. Preschool fees can vary from $4000-13000 per year based on the setting and hours you choose. There are programmes similar to preschool in each state that do offer free or low cost options, click here for more information.

Do children need to go?

There is no requirement for children to go to preschool. However, many parents and teachers advocate the benefits of preschool for children’s education and development. There are studies like this one from the Learning Policy Institute that found:

“Students who attend preschool programs are more prepared for school and are less likely to be identified as having special needs or to be held back in elementary school than children who did not attend preschool. Studies also show clear positive effects on children’s early literacy and mathematics skills.”

In short, children who attend preschool are more likely to succeed in school from the get go. Many parents consider preschool to be an important part of their child’s education.

Pros and cons of preschool


  • Preschool has proven benefits for children’s development and education
  • Children gain independence and develop social skills at preschool
  • Most children enjoy preschool
  • Preschool can support parents work schedules by providing childcare
  • In some countries, it is free or heavily subsidised
  • Preschools have qualified teachers working with children


  • Preschool can be expensive and therefore out of reach for some families
  • Preschool hours can be tough to work around for working parents. Their opening hours may not align with the work day or cover school holidays.
  • What’s the rush? Some parents feel that there’s no need to throw your child into an educational setting at such a young age, even if it is learning through play. You have to decide what’s right for you.

What are the alternatives to preschool?

There are a few alternatives to preschool for families to consider. First of all, some families choose to homeschool their children and prefer to keep them out of a preschool setting. This works well for many families who choose to take trips, explore the outdoors and play together at home.

Another option is a private nursery or daycare setting with extended hours to better accommodate the working day. Some families simply need childcare for longer periods of time and choose a setting that gives them that. Most of these places still work to prepare children for school, although they may not have a qualified teacher on their staff.

Finally, some families opt to use a childminder or nanny to care for their children before they are ready for school. This is a registered child care giver who cares for children in their home or yours. Again, many working parents find these set ups work well around their jobs. 

Related Post: 5 Alternatives To Preschool

children drawing with a teacher

What is a nursery?

In the UK a nursery is a childcare setting for babies, toddlers and preschool aged children. A child can attend the same nursery until they go to school. In the USA, a nursery implies a place that cares for young babies within a daycare. Daycare centers cater to babies and children up until they start school.

When do children go to nursery?

Each nursery or daycare in the USA has their own policy and you will find some will take babies from 2 weeks old and others wait until babies are 12 weeks old. In the UK, most nurseries will take babies from 6-10 months old. Again, each nursery does things a little bit differently. Nurseries and daycares care for children until they are old enough to attend school.

In the case of nursery schools in the UK, places are offered once children are 2 until they are 4 and off to school. 

How long do children attend nursery?

Children attend nursery for different lengths of time based on each family’s needs. Some children start nursery as babies and remain in the same place until they are nearly 5 and off to school. Other children will go for a couple of years and move into a preschool as they get older. Our situations can change at any point and have an effect on how long children are in some form of nursery or day care. Some children won’t attend a nursery at all.

How much does it cost?

Nursery is free, or subsidised, in some countries around the world. For example, in the UK preschool or nursery is free for 15-30 hours per week during the school term time for children over 3. You can often add on additional care hours, such as breakfast and tea clubs, for an additional cost. For babies and young toddlers, nursery typically costs £40-80 per day and varies by region.

In the USA, nursery is not generally free. Nursery or daycare fees can vary from $4000-13000 per year based on the setting and hours you choose.

Pros and cons of nurseries


  • Nurseries generally offer extended hours that suit many parent’s working hours
  • They are good places for children to gain independence, learn and grow
  • Children often have fun at nursery


  • Nursery tends to be expensive
  • Each nursery operates in a different way and there is not necessarily a standard of education or care across the board

What are the alternatives to nurseries?

There are some alternatives to nurseries such as:

  • A childminder – this is where you take your child to a registered child carer’s home
  • A nanny or au pair – this is when someone comes to your home to care for your children and can even live with you
  • Preschool – this is another option for childcare and education once your child is 3 years old