What are the different types of child care programs?

From child care centers to family home programs to school-based, there are many types of child care programs to choose from. Which one is right for your family and child?

Searching for a child care program can be overwhelming when you don’t understand the different types of programs available. There are programs based in homes, in commercial buildings, even programs where children spend every moment outside. With pros and cons to every type of program, know that none is superior to the other—it comes down to what is the best fit for your family.

Thoroughly researching all of your options is worth the time and effort, so to help you get started, let's look at the four types of child care programs that you'll come across in your search:

  1. Home-based

  2. Center-based

  3. School-based

  4. Outdoor/nature-based

Every type of program can provide licensed, quality care and education to get your child ready for the next level of learning, but each will provide a very different environment for your child and family. The decision depends on how you want your child to be introduced to education, how you’d like them to socialize, and who you want around your child in their early years.

Home-Based Programs

Home-based programs are small child care businesses that often operate inside of a provider's family home (not yours). These programs offer full-time or part-time care, and children are often placed in mixed-age groups since there is less room for separate classrooms.


  • Lower costs. Home-based programs often offer care at a cheaper price tag, because it costs less for that provider to operate. There's less staff, no commercial lease, and no commercial insurance.

  • Smaller class sizes. These programs are typically licensed for anywhere from 2-20 children.

  • Home-like atmosphere. As the name suggests, home-based programs can offer a comfortable, home-like environment for children who are nervous about new environments.

  • Flexibility. With less coordination needed, home-based providers can be more flexible with their schedules and accommodate a trickier schedule for parents who work late shifts or long hours. Be sure to ask the provider about your options.

  • Fewer germs. Fewer kids = fewer germs.


  • Not as stable. If your home-based provider gets sick or goes on vacation, more than likely you will lose care for that period of time. With home-based programs, you definitely need to have a back-up care plan in place.

  • Mixed ages. Smaller child care programs usually don't have enough separate spaces to keep newborns, toddlers, and preschoolers separate. This can be a plus for younger children who get the opportunity to be around older children but can be a negative for older children if they don't have other older children to learn from and explore with.

Center-Based Programs

Center-based programs are located in commercial buildings that offer programs in similar age-based classrooms. They are usually larger than family homes, serving anywhere from 20 children to 400 in one location. These programs offer full-time or part-time care.


  • Greater peer interaction. Larger class sizes at center-based programs can provide plenty of opportunities for socialization with diverse students.

  • More structured curriculum. With additional staff and administrative teams, center-based programs can often offer more structured schedules and a broader range of activities.

  • Dependability. Center-based programs can offer more schedule stability as they often have enough staff and back-up team members who can support classrooms when a teacher is out due to illness or on vacation.


  • Strict hours. Center-based programs are usually less able to meet the needs of parents with late, early, or fluctuating work schedules.

  • Higher costs. Because of the costs associated with running out of a commercial building and employing more staff, these programs usually come with a higher price tag.

  • Staff turnover. Center-based programs tend to see higher staff turnover due to standard organizational politics, lack of upward mobility, and lower pay rates.

School-Based Programs

School-based programs are operated in public school buildings that offer programs for preschool children. These programs offer the same size classrooms as center-based programs do, and offer full-time or part-time care. School-based programs offer the same pros and cons as center-based programs, plus the following:


  • Early school-age friends. Children that participate in the preschool and pre-K programs in school-based programs often move into Kindergarten together, which can make the transition to Kindergarten much easier on a child.


  • Difficult to get into. Many school-based programs only offer care to those who are zoned for that particular school and have limited availability because of their partnerships with government subsidy programs.

Nature-Based Care

Outdoor/nature-based care programs operate—you guessed it—outdoors. Depending on the program, children will spend anywhere from 30% of all of their time playing and learning outdoors. Children are often placed in mixed-age groups because class sizes are kept intentionally small, with a low student-to-teacher ratio. Most programs offer part-time care and meet in the mornings for a half-day.


  • Plenty of time outdoors. Exploring the great outdoors is the foundation of outdoor/nature-based programs. Children are encouraged to interact with their environment and indulge in their curiosity.

  • Less structured curriculum. While teachers have different areas of expertise such as plants or animals, children direct their own learning opportunities based on their experiences, interests, and abilities.

  • Blended early education philosophies. In addition to an emphasis on developing environmental literacy, outdoor/nature-based programs often borrow from other early educational philosophies such as Montessori and Reggio Emilia.


  • Strict hours. Most outdoor/nature-based programs meet in the morning for a half-day. Depending on the program, some have a scheduled drop-off time while others require the parent to stay and participate.

  • Hard to get into. Due to limited class sizes, low student-to-teacher ratios, and location, these programs can be inaccessible for most parents and/or hard to get into.


No matter which type of child care program you decide to go with, consider these questions before you begin your search: How large of a group size do you want your infant in? Are you ok with them being with older/younger kids, or would you prefer them to be kept with children the same age? What curriculum or schedule do you want your child to have and does it vary from month to month. What safety measures are important for the center you choose? This includes childproofing, food safety practices, a well-kept and maintained play space with sets of toys, and an emergency/natural disaster plan.

These considerations apply regardless of the program type, and knowing what's important to you will help you navigate the search more easily!