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Preschool Beats Informal Care, Study Says

Formal day care, like Head Start, public school pre-K and private centers, provide higher-quality care and education to both toddlers and 4-year-olds than informal, non-parent caregivers, according to a data analysis published in the most recent issue of Child Development, a scientific journal. 

The research, led by Daphna Bassok at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, looks at data from a database tracking about 14,000 children who were born in 2001. Overall, children who received care in a formal, center-based setting watched less TV, spent more time outside, were read to more often, and spent more time learning age-appropriate math skills. By age 5, they were better readers and mathematicians than their counterparts who received care from a babysitter, a non-parent relative, or in a home-based licensed-care setting. 

Teachers in formal care settings were far more likely to have a degree in early-childhood education or a related field (56 percent) than caregivers in informal settings (9 percent). Center-based teachers were also more likely to participate in ongoing training. Still, only 37 percent of such teachers met the researchers' composite measure of high quality. Among informal caregivers, only 2 percent met the high-quality standard. Researchers posit that many of these differences can be attributed to the stricter regulations faced by formal centers.

The study pulled apart differences in family background and found that the advantage of formal care settings persisted. However, when quality was accounted for—when informal care providers met quality standards— the differences between the two settings was no longer significant. And while prekindergarten teachers had more formal education themselves, Head Start teachers had more ongoing training and work experience.

Interestingly, Head Start did fairly well in this analysis. Though children who attended public school-based prekindergarten programs tended to outperform Head Start on most measures, most of the difference can be explained by family background, according to the study.   

The one area where informal care shone brighter than formal care was in the "interesting outings" category. Children in informal care were more likely to go to the library, to the zoo, or to other such outings. Whether that offsets the 82 to 120 minutes of TV they were watching per day at age 2 is an open question. (Two-year-olds in formal care settings watched about 12 minutes of TV per day.)

One final note, which I found particularly interesting given my interest in early math: Public school-based prekindergarten programs did the best at math in every version of the analysis. 

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