Preschool vs. pre-k: What's the difference?

Written by: Creative Scholars Preschool

As summer nears, families across Chicago inevitably start to ask themselves if their child should go to preschool or pre-kindergarten. If they are currently enrolled in an early childhood program, they start to wonder if they need to find a pre-kindergarten program when their child turns three, leaving their current program even if they are happy there.

In a city full of early childhood options, it’s no surprise that families find themselves asking this question as they start to think about where they would like to send their 3- or 4-year-olds for early education experiences. The number of options can make the decision an overwhelming task! But it’s important to note that when it comes to preschool and pre-kindergarten in Chicago, the two are used interchangeably for programs that provide care and education prior to the start of kindergarten.

What’s the difference? The biggest difference in these labels is actually a political one. The national conversation around universal pre-k centers around the idea that all 4-year-olds should have an opportunity to participate in early childhood programs. The term pre-k is used to define the year prior to kindergarten, while preschool is the term used to define all early learning programs from birth to age five. In Chicago, the differences between a program that refers to itself as a preschool and a program that refers to itself as a pre-kindergarten are rooted in the program’s individual philosophy, marketing techniques, and the image the program wants to present to families.

What are parents really asking when they are asking about preschool or pre-k? I’ve discovered over the years that when families ask if their child should attend preschool or pre-k, what they are really asking is which program will best prepare their children for kindergarten. That answer isn’t as simple since each family needs to take into account their own ideas about early childhood education, their child’s personality, and what program makes the most sense logistically for their family.

What questions should families be asking if not “preschool or pre-K”?

  • Do we need an early learning program that also provides full daycare? 
  • Do we want our child to attend an independent school that may start admissions at 3 or 4 years instead of kindergarten?
  • Does it make more sense for our family to have our youngest child attend a CPS preschool program in the same school as our older children?
  • What do we want our child’s early learning experience to be? For example, do we want a program that promotes outdoor education, or is rooted in the arts or the sciences, or is centered on community and learning to be a good citizen?

If there isn’t a difference between preschool and pre-k, what should families look for in an early learning setting?

  • Is the program clearly able to articulate their philosophy, curriculum, and child development?
  • Do the teachers and administrators have training in early childhood education and child development?
  • Do the classrooms focus on the development of the child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth?

Megan Sexton, MS Child Development, is the director of Creative Scholars Preschool. She is also a co-chair of the Bucktown Community Organization’s Education committee and a contributing member to the Chicago Chapter of the National Association of Education for Young Children. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, exploring Chicago museums, and visiting her 9-year-old niece.

Related articles:

How I did my preschool search

VIDEO: Chicago Public & Private Preschool Primer (members only)

How to apply for CPS preschools


Posted on May 14, 2019 at 1:41 PM