In your memory, preschool and kindergarten probably look nearly identical. Both involved craft projects, singalongs and the occasional meltdown over broken crayons. Even to your grown-up eye, the two still look similar, but preschool is a flexible program for young children, and kindergarten is the first step in your child's formal education. Both preschool and kindergarten classes still include that one kid who's always eating paste.
Differences in Requirements
Sending your child to preschool is like sending him or her to kindergarten training camp. Preschool programs typically include children between two or three years old and five years old, with some children attending for one year and others for two or more years. The choice to enroll your child in preschool is yours, and you can pick any program you like. However, you'll generally have to pay for tuition and fees like you'd pay for daycare. On the other hand, almost all children attend one year of kindergarten through their local school district, though not all children technically have to attend. As of a 2014 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, only 16 states made kindergarten attendance mandatory.
Differences in Staff
Your child's preschool teacher could be vibrant, energetic, sympathetic and a natural with kids, but she doesn't necessarily have a degree in education. The hiring requirements vary depending on the preschool you choose, so if your child's classroom includes a team of teachers, it could be that one — or none — has a college degree in childhood development or education. On the other hand, public schools generally require preschool teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree in early childhood education or a related field.
To get hired as a kindergarten teacher, a teacher generally needs at least a bachelor's degree in elementary education as well as their teaching credentials. Some states also require kindergarten teachers to major in certain content areas, such as mathematics or science. A kindergarten class might also have a few assistants to help with activities and help the teacher maintain her sanity.
Differences in Hours and Facilities
Since kindergarten is offered by your school district, you and your child will be at the mercy of the school's calendar, meaning you'll have to figure out what to do with him or her for the whole summer and for several weeks of vacations throughout the year. Your child's preschool, on the other hand, might offer daycare on holidays and hold summer sessions too. Kindergarten classrooms are generally located in your district's elementary school, so your child might come face to face with older kids in the halls and on the bus. His or her class might also get to have formal gym, music and art classes and participate in school-wide concerts and assemblies. Some kids might be overwhelmed by all the changes, while others will puff up their chests and walk with big-kid pride.
Differences in Curriculum
Your preschooler isn't going to jump from sorting buttons to learning the quadratic equation when he or she enters kindergarten. Teachers in both grades help students learn about math, writing and science through exploration, but kindergarten is a bit more advanced and formal than preschool. Instead of lying on the floor scribbling on construction paper, kindergartners will often sit at tables and start to form words with shakily constructed letters. In preschool, your child might learn to count to 20; in kindergarten, your child will be introduced to simple subtraction and addition. Things don't get too serious, too quickly in kindergarten. You shouldn't have to worry about helping your child with homework or studying for tests for at least another year or two.
- PBS.org: Grade-by-Grade Learning: Pre-K
- PBS.org: Grade-by-Grade Learning: Kindergarten
- National Center for Education Statistics: Types of State and District Requirements for Kindergarten Entrance and Attendance by State, 2014
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a Kindergarten or Elementary School Teacher
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a Preschool Teacher
- Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images