The bets are in, the gloves are off, and the movement to shift away from the term ‘daycare’ is growing fast.

Teachers, child care providers and other early childhood education (ECE) practitioners are fighting for fairer pay and fairer treatment—and the child care vs. daycare debate has taken center stage.

So, the jury’s out. Should we be listening to the growing movement of child care professionals who say terminology matters? Or do actions speak louder than words?

We asked 12 leading child care professionals to discover whether you, as an administrator, should be part of the movement, or whether this is just another case of political correctness gone overboard.

But first, let’s take a closer look at the vocab in question.

What’s the difference between child care, daycare and preschool?

The term ‘daycare’ has been around for generations but today, it’s under fire for two main reasons:

  1. First, not all ECE professionals work during the day—a simple, but necessary distinction.
  2. Second, many experts believe the term focuses too much on the convenience of the service, rather than the child’s needs.

Meanwhile, ‘preschool’ is perfect for services provided for children ages three to five, but fails to include the earlier years below age three.

‘Child care’, on the other hand, seems to hit the nail on the head.

It’s the catch-all term more and more ECE professionals are gravitating towards. By putting the emphasis on the child, this term centers on the most important aspect of the service—the development, support and safety of the child themself.

But if ‘daycare’ is out, which words should we be using?

Understanding the reasons to steer clear of the term ‘daycare’ is a great start, but what language should you use instead?

Here are a few alternatives:

  • Child care
  • Child care and education
  • Early childhood care and education
  • Early childhood education
  • Early care and education

And what should we be calling ECE professionals?

Many professionals have their own preference for what they want to be referred to as. So when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask.

But a couple of commonly-used terms are:

  • Teacher
  • Early childhood professional

Alright. Now that you know there are options, let’s dive a bit deeper into the reasons for using them.

Why ‘daycare’ doesn’t fit the bill…

Hitting straight to the heart of it, Lisa Guernsey, Director at Learning Technologies Project and Senior Advisor on Early and Elementary Education Policy New America, points out the linguistic errors within the term ‘daycare’.

“Firstly,” she says, “it is the child that receives care, not the day. We need to put children into our vocabulary to recognize the importance of this experience for our youngest learners.”

“Secondly, sometimes parents need child care in evening hours too. We cannot forget the brave but struggling single parents who are working late-night shifts.”

..and ‘child care’ is on the rise.

On the other hand, for many experts the term ‘child care’ does exactly what it says on the tin.

For this reason, ECE veterans like Elizabeth Engelhardt, a retired professor from the University of Dayton with over 30 years’ experience in early childhood education, are firmly in favor of the term ‘child care’.

“Child care describes in short what we do: care for children,” says Elizabeth, “Daycare is more common, less descriptive and is used to indicate other types of services such as Adult Care, puppy daycare, etc.”

Though she does admit that “child care is limited as well. We not only care for children but nurture, educate and build community.”

Cindy Terebush, Early Childhood Consultant, Author and Podcast Host, agrees. “We care for children. We care for their well-being, development of their sense of self and their understanding of their world and how it works.”

But some things aren’t as easy as ABC.

Zeynep Ercan, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at Rowan University, is here to throw a spanner in the works.

Zeynep argues that there is a tangible difference of meaning between ‘daycare’ and ‘child care’—or, as she prefers to term it ‘early childhood care and education’—which means that it may not be as simple as just replacing one term with the other.

“Early childhood professionals are brain builders and have a significant impact on children’s growing physical, social emotional and cognitive potential,” she says, “Daycare [doesn’t] have large professional objectives for what they offer, they are comfortable being able to provide support for families by caring for children in a friendly positive environment.”

She believes that “daycare will continue in the form of more informal child care, but places with high quality education will differentiate themselves with this term by joining professional organizations…getting licensing, accreditation, and joining state quality rating and improvement systems.”

In other words, there’s a lot more to this debate than meets the eye.

Why bother changing anything? Will anyone even notice?

According to expert Bevin K. Reinen, founder of the Teach.Train.Love community, “Words matter!”

“Early childhood education is undervalued,” says Bevin, “Despite the countless studies that have demonstrated the tremendous impact it has on children’s health and well-being, as well as on society as a whole. If we want to elevate our profession, we need to make sure our work is being referenced with regard.”

“ECE professionals do far more than simply babysit kids during a certain time of day. The term child care puts children at the center and more accurately depicts how we support children’s social, emotional and academic needs to educate the whole child.”

Kindergarten teacher, Alexis Vorhaus, agrees: “ECE professionals should care how we are ‘labeled’…it is representative of the value the speaker/society places on our roles,” she says, “The work we do is fundamental to the success of our children and the foundation of our society.”

By using an outdated term that doesn’t actually say what it means, the early childhood profession is giving the wrong impression to service users, potential partners and funders.

“ECE professionals should care about the label people use to refer to the work they do because labels have the power to uplift or deprofessionalize,” says Denisha Jones, Assistant Professor at the College of Arts and Sciences, Trinity Washington University, “The early childhood profession is routinely undervalued because many people associate this work with babysitting or daycare.”

“Thus,” explains Denisha, “the terms we use to describe our work [are] very important…Early care and education are more than simply providing custodial care to young children while their parents or at work or school. Child care is about ensuring experiences that lead to optimal child development outcomes for all children.”

Okay, we get that the professionals might care, but will it impact the child at all?

Remember that time when you were five and your next-door neighbor pushed you in the dirt?

Okay, maybe that never happened—but the point is we all know things that happen to children tend to linger on into adulthood.

Award-winning author, renowned teacher and internationally recognized expert in childhood education and developmental psychology, Becky A. Bailey is a big believer in this, and even suggests that the terminology we use could impact on children’s sense of self.

“Our words, body language and actions will show what we value, whether we are conscious of it or not,” she says. “Do we see our centers as a place where children will encounter heartfelt care and learning opportunities, or do we see them as a place to keep children for the day while we’re busy working?”

By showing, through the words we use, that we value early childhood education, we can show that we value the children themselves.

“During the critical early years, children acquire a number of basic skills while also establishing lifelong internal blueprints for relationships and their sense of self. The difference between ‘daycare’ vs. ‘child care’ might seem small to us, but it is monumental to a rapidly developing brain!” says Becky.

And she isn’t alone in this thinking.

“Early childhood professionals should care about the terms used to discuss their work,” agrees Cindy Terebush, “We know a great deal about the impact of the early childhood years and the influence that a child’s interactions has on their view of themselves and the world, yet early childhood educators struggle to be respected.”

The evolution of the child care provider

Change is in the air.

And it’s not just the language that we use that’s changing.

According to Marissa Calderón, Founder at Early Childhood Journeys, LLC, and Host at Early Childhood Journeys Podcast, the role of the child care provider itself has undergone a massive transformation over the last few decades.

Marissa’s motivation for making the switch-up from ‘daycare’ to ‘child care’ is down to the evolution of the ECE professional, whose “role has evolved to much more for your children.”

She points out, “They do more than keep kids safe. They are charged with the task of providing an intellectual and social emotional development…If we want the public to see Early Childhood Education practitioners as more than babysitters, then we need to omit using terms like ‘babysitter’ and ‘daycare’ in the same sentence as an Early Childhood teacher to help elevate the profession.”

Heidi Butkus, teacher and founder at Heidi Songs, goes one step further as she explains that, in today’s world, the role of the early childhood professional is more important now than ever before.

“The decline of the multigenerational household has made the preschool, pre-K, and Kindergarten teachers’ jobs much more significant than ever before,” she argues, “It used to be that young parents would learn to raise children by watching and helping their parents raise younger siblings. They would also get help with their own children from their parents, who would either live in the same house or very close-by…Early childhood professionals are trying to fill in for ALL of these missing family members. They are often also teaching parents how to care for their children as well.”

According to Heidi, because of this immensely emotional role that ECE professionals play, the term ‘child care’ is the way to go. “They attempt to provide for the emotional well-being of the little ones in their care,” she says, “What would we do without them?”

Should we really get so hung-up on terminology?

To some, it feels like a lot of energy is going into the ‘daycare’ vs ‘child care’ debate, when it could be better channeled somewhere else.

Richard Cohen, international Early Childhood Education motivational speaker and Director of Vermont’s Turtle Island Children’s Center, would argue that perhaps it’s time we put this debate to one side and start focusing on other things—and with over three decades as an early childhood professional under his belt, he may have a point.

“The pendulum needs to come back to a healthier point in the middle in which we don’t get so hung up on terminology,” he says, “and instead focus our attentions on the underlying systemic issues to which those terms refer.”

“I don’t think whether we call it ‘daycare’ or ‘child care’ is/will produce the results we are looking for.”

Instead, Richard suggests that the ‘underlying systemic issues’ need to be addressed first, as a matter of priority.

“As professionals, we deserve worthier wages; to be seen as members of the greater (K-12) educational system, whose pay is far higher than ours….As long as the funding streams that support care for young children are controlled by old, wealthy White men, it won’t matter which terms we use. Our field will continue to be underfunded, under-respected and misunderstood for the societal and economic benefits we provide.”

Good point – so what can we do to help the situation?

For many of our experts, the ‘daycare’ vs ‘child care’ debate is part of a much bigger problem. That problem, in a nutshell, is the way the ECE profession is viewed by parents, society, funders and other professions.

So, as director, what actions can you take to help bridge this gap?

Ashley Rice, Early Childhood Director at YMCA of Greater Indianapolis, believes the first step is to bring in a little help from technology. “Five or ten years ago, everything was paper-based. There was a disconnect between parents understanding their child’s development and what they actually did in school.”

With the advancement of technology and the integration of tech in child care centers, things have changed. From ‘going digital’ with websites, social media and e-learning tools, both ECE professionals and parents have started discovering the benefit of tech.

And now, with smart child care apps in the mix, things have changed again.

By making it easier for parents and teachers to communicate, child care apps help parents see a provider’s true value.

Ashley uses MomentPath to help her show (not just tell) parents exactly what their children are learning each and every day they’re in her care.

“[Play] is just like anything else…language, math, science,” says Ashley. “These are the things your child is learning on a day-to-day basis. Yes, you come in and they are playing. But play is an important part of them learning.’ [Smart child care apps] help them understand that.”

Was this useful? Get more advice and tips!

Join 4,000+ fellow care professionals! We're building the largest community of providers, staff, and teachers. To receive our newsletter and access exclusive content, tools, and resources, just supply your email address.