Nursery and Preschool: What’s the Difference?

If you are looking for a childcare option for your young child, you may be getting confused by the difference between a nursery and a preschool. 

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they don’t always mean the same thing.

For all intents and purposes, both a nursery and preschool are great options for pre-elementary care. The question is which one makes sense in your budget, fits your schedule, meets your child’s development phase, and makes you feel the most comfortable. 

There are four main differences between a nursery and preschool: The age ranges, the curriculum, the cost, and the hours of operation. 

Here is a general breakdown:

Preschools are for kids between 3 and 5, operate during normal school hours, provide a more formalized education, and can cost more if they are privately run. 

Nurseries are for infants and toddlers up to 3 or 4 years old, can usually accommodate flexible schedules, provide a less formal education and are more geared toward play and exploration, and can cost less, depending on their size and staff.

We offer a deeper dive into the difference between nursery and preschool below. 

Age groups

Very generally, nurseries are for children between infancy and 3 years of age, while preschools are for children between 3 and 5 years old. This isn’t a strict definition — some nurseries accept children older than 3 and preschools can certainly admit children younger than 3 — but it’s a good rule of thumb.

You might want to graduate your child from a nursery to a preschool when they turn 3 or 4. This is a great way to get them ready for the educational environment of kindergarten!

School preparation

The main difference between a nursery and preschool is the learning environment. 

Preschools are part of the schooling system, and generally have a learning curriculum that teaches children basic letter learning, numbers and counting systems, and important behavioral skills. 

A preschool instructor likely has a set curriculum that he or she will follow for the school year, teaching your child about basic science, for instance, through experiments and activities tested and approved by educators.

When comparing preschools, you will definitely want to ask about their math and letter-learning strategies. Are the preschool teachers emphasizing the importance of phonics? Exposing your child to diverse and engaging reading material? How are they teaching numbers and how do they track progress? What kind of childcare management software do they use to communicate with parents?

Nurseries will focus much more on games and exploration, keeping children happy and well taken care of while parents are at work. A nursery environment may be less routine when it comes to lessons and hours of operation. It is important to ask nursery providers about their daily schedule, meal plans, and health protocols. Try to get a feel for how your child will spend the day.

Remember, just because a nursery doesn’t have the same curriculum as a preschool, that doesn’t mean children are not learning! 

Nurseries often teach children important behavioral and socialization lessons, like sharing, patience, kindness, and cooperation. Nursery providers will be teaching your child how to be on their best behavior in a group setting, and how to interact properly with their peers. You may want to ask the childcare provider how they emphasize behavioral skills and encourage children to get along. 


Cost can be a defining factor when it comes to making the choice between nursery and preschool. 

Nurseries tend to be less expensive than private preschools, but preschools are more likely to be publicly funded. 

Preschools often require that some of their staff be certified in early education. That means the cost for a private preschool can be much higher than at a nursery where caregivers do not have advanced degrees. 

Nurseries, on the other hand, are more likely to be run by childcare administrators who have lived experience, are parents themselves, or have been in the childcare business for a long time. They may not have certifications or degrees, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t excellent caregivers. 

A 2017 report from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that more U.S. states than ever are now providing public preschool options. And, according to Reading Rockets, about 73 percent of pre-k teachers in state-funded programs report that they have a bachelor’s degree. That is great news! 

New York City, for example, has a Pre-K For All program that guarantees access to preschool education for all children who reside in the five boroughs.

Access your state’s Department of Education website to learn more about whether state-funded preschool is an option for your family.

Hours of operation

Timing can be everything when it comes to childcare.

Some people may send their children to a drop-in nursery and a preschool, to cover the hours they need for work or other obligations. 

Preschools prepare children for school and generally operate during school hours, offering breakfast and lunch, but not dinner.

Nurseries tend to have more flexible hours, and may offer nighttime or morning-only care times. Some nurseries will offer part-time or “drop-in” care. (If you are considering opening a childcare center, click here to learn more about how offering drop-in services can bolster your bottom line.)

We suggest that you do plenty of research to find the nursery and preschool options that work best with your schedule.

When choosing between nursery and preschool, you will also want to explore the values different programs offer. There are faith-based preschools and nurseries, as well as secular options, programs that cater to children with special needs, and programs that adhere to state or federal education criteria — all of these factors will make a difference when it comes to choosing between nursery and preschool. 

In the end, the most important thing is that your child is happy, healthy, and on track to learn the skills they will need as they grow up. Good luck!

Looking for an all-in-one childcare management app that makes communication between parents and preschool administrators a breeze? Look no further. Wündercare is the easiest-to-use home childcare software on the market, made by childcare providers for childcare providers.

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