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Where Preschoolers Learn

A new study illuminates the landscape of early ed, finding that 3-year-olds spend less time in formal care than 4-year-olds
Preschool Handprints

Four-year-olds are more likely to be enrolled in formal child-care programs — in preschool or daycare centers with classrooms — than three-year-olds, according to research released today by the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Three year olds — while equally likely to spend time in formal as in informal settings (in family day care or in the care of a relative, for example) — spend fewer hours overall in formal care than four-year-olds.

These are among the preliminary findings of the Early Learning Study at Harvard, a large-scale, population-based survey of the early education landscape that launched last spring and promises to reshape our understanding of how today’s young children are spending their time — and how to deliver high-quality learning experiences across all settings. At this initial stage, the research hasn’t produced data to suggest which settings yield higher-quality experiences, but the early findings highlight the importance of understanding what makes for a stimulating learning environment in the informal, home-based settings where younger children spend more of their time.

The first findings from a large-scale, population-based study that promises to reshape our understanding of how today’s preschool children are spending their time — and how to deliver high-quality early learning experiences across all settings. 

Policy Implications

The data come from a household survey of parents and guardians in Massachusetts. When complete, the household survey will form one cornerstone of a study that will follow a representative sample of three- and four-year-olds from across Massachusetts for four years, capturing their experiences in the actual settings in which they spend their time. The study aims to significantly enrich our current knowledge about what works in early education, which relies primarily on data from just a handful of small-scale studies that date back to the 1960s and 1970s.

The new findings — suggesting the greater likelihood that four-year-olds are in formal care settings than three year olds — might reflect the fact that four-year-olds “have more formal options to choose from at this age, or that parents are responding to the movement for a year of preschool before school begins,” says Nonie Leseaux, who co-directs the Zaentz Initiative with Stephanie Jones, both faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “What we don’t yet know is what these various experiences mean for children’s learning and growing.” The study will fill in many of those gaps, helping policymakers understand the characteristics of early care in formal and informal settings, the links to children’s outcomes over time, and effective practices to improve quality and access across the spectrum. (The researchers note that these preliminary findings are not yet representative of the population at large, because they pull from a partial sample of data; the full sample will be representative, as will the final study results.)

Parental Hopes and Concerns

The household survey also revealed that parents strongly believe in their young children’s abilities and intelligence, but they worry that their kids won’t develop the learning skills or gain access to the academic opportunities they’ll need for later life success.

The survey asked parents questions designed to elicit a sense of their aspirations and concerns for their preschool-aged children. Parents were asked about:

  • their confidence in their child’s schooling
  • their confidence in their child’s medical care
  • their biggest worry for their child
  • how they would describe their child, using three words

Confidence in schools and health care:
Parents generally expressed a high level of confidence in both schooling and medical care, though they expressed a slightly higher level of confidence in medical care. And researchers said that a non-negligible number of responses to the schooling question ranged from “somewhat confident” to “not at all confident,” indicating that schooling is a concern for a number of parents.

Biggest worry:
By far, parents worried most about academic skills and education — a broad category encompassing concerns about access, quality, and ability.

Next on the common worry list, in order, were: social-emotional well-being and physical well-being. Less common, but still significant, were worries about self-actualization and morals and about the state of the world.

Describe your child:
When asked to describe their child in three words, parents most often used the word “smart.” Other commonly heard words: funny, intelligent, and loving. Almost all of the descriptive words parents used were positive.


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