Pre-Schools: Half-day vs. Full-day for 3-year-olds


   For most of us, our parents would not have even considered enrolling us in full-time pre-school. For many of us, pre-school — whether half-day or full-day — was not even considered.  

   But shifting family structures and the economic landscape — the increase in single parent and two-parent families where the adults hold down jobs with long hours — have resulted in an increased demand for full-day pre-schools.

The pros and cons

   Full-day pre-school programs provide a more relaxed, unhurried school day allowing for in-depth explorations, varied experiences, trips and deeper relationships. Children tend to demonstrate more independent learning and classroom involvement, and are able to work more productively with peers. On the other hand, some argue that full-day programs are too expensive because they require more space and more staff than half-day programs.  And there is a concern that full-day programs may become too academic — focusing on basic skills before children may be ready.

   Half-day programs can provide a high quality educational experience to orient children to elementary school — with less probability of stress than full-day programs.  The shorter length of the day is in keeping with young children’s attention span and interest levels.  And the shorter day permits more time for young children to interact with adults and peers in a less-structured or home environment.  But in a half-day program, young children need to navigate numerous, major transitions in a relatively short period of time.  And there are fewer opportunities for trips and large group activities such as assemblies.

What the research shows

   The research focusing on full-day versus half-day pre-school programs has centered on ‘disadvantaged’ children or children considered ‘at-risk’.  Studies do show that students who attend quality, full-day programs demonstrate academic advantages into elementary school; some contend that the positive effects of attending full-day pre-school can last as far as the 4th grade.  These findings hold true for students who enter pre-school seeming to lag behind their peers; they are able to catch up by attending full-day, good quality preschools.

   The benefit of attending pre-school programs is that children are socialized to the culture of public schools, enabling them to more effectively access the schools’ resources.  Beyond the socialization aspect, children learn skills that prepare them to take full advantage of their elementary school experiences.

What’s best for my child?

   Choosing the type of pre-school program is shaped by a variety of important family issues. The parents’ work schedules may allow very little flexibility.  But it’s also important to match a child’s temperament with their pre-school program.  A core belief about early childhood education at Bank Street is that children should look forward to coming to school because it is both challenging and fun so that they enter willingly.  To this end, there are a series of questions parents can ask themselves:

—Is my child open to meeting new children and adults?
—How stressed does my child become when separated from us?
—When my child is upset, how willing are they to be consoled by someone other than a parent?
—Does my child make transitions easily from one place to another, and from one activity to another?
—Is my child willing to try new things easily?

   Children who struggle with multiple transitions during their day, for instance, may find a full-day program best.  Children who seem worried about their families while they are in school could benefit from attending a half-day program as a way to prepare for full-day kindergarten or elementary school.


   There are a series of guidelines for early childhood education rather than standards because children’s development can’t be accurately assessed with standardized tests.  The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) provides a series of guidelines called developmentally appropriate practices with young children often found in high quality preschools.

NANCY M. CARDWELL is a member of the graduate faculty at Bank Street College of Education where she teaches child development in the Teacher Education Department and research methods for social change for Leadership in the Arts Program.  Prior to joining the Bank Street faculty, Nancy taught pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in central Harlem.  She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Social Personality Psychology Department at the CUNY Graduate Center.  Her most recent work explores the nexus of social development and social justice in beginning teachers’ work with children in diverse public and private school settings.


We asked Nancy Cardwell how parents whose 3-year-olds are not in a preschool program can enrich their child’s day — without overloading them:

   “Generally, Bank Street encourages hands-on activities so that children can develop their language, thinking, math and science understandings through experience,” she replied.  “Parents can extend their children’s learning experiences by setting up activities at home that include letter or number scavenger hunts where children search for a particular letter or number.  They can tell each other stories, with children illustrating the stories.  Parents can take trips to museums and zoos as a way to explore the world beyond their homes.

   “There is a lot of learning in the daily activities some adults find tedious like grocery shopping, going to the laundry, the dry cleaners, the post office that fascinate children because they provide an explosion of sights and sounds,” she points out.  “Each of these places will spark numerous questions about what things are and how they work.  There will be many questions about the people who work in the stores.  These are stimulating experiences for young children.  Engaging young children’s questions about what they see and hear is the cornerstone of high quality early childhood education in school and at home.  Talking to young children about their feelings, drawings, and observations is another approach parents can take to build on their children’s preschool experiences.”


   Kids’ entertainer Dan Cohen, who is also a Nyack dad, offers his thoughts on pre-school:
   “Pre-schools? I ove 'em.  Child-rearing is such a full-time activity, everyone needs a break sometimes — including the child. After 18 months or so, I think it helps kids to be around other kids, helps them develop coping skills, discover new interests and talents, and allows a parent a bit of much needed down time (quite literally, in my experience!).  Our kids did 3 hours, 3 mornings a week, on average, beginning around 2 1/2. Mostly playgroups before that, where moms hung out together with their kids.

   “It's important to rejuvenate and restock on that most important of parental attribute: patience. I met a parent in a playground when my oldest was 3 or so. I was so tired. He was crying, he was fighting with other kids, he needed me, he needed me, he needed me...the old song. I was frustrated, and this parent (I think she may have been some sort of angel) said to me, 'When kids get like that and you're just totally out of patience, all you have to do is dig down and find...more patience.'  She smiled and took off (not literally. I mean she walked out of the park!). I never saw her again. But I never forgot those words.”

   Cindy Levine is a Tappan mom, with three children, ages 9, 6 and 4. A former teacher, she has studied for her Masters and has worked as a guidance counselor since becoming a mom. When she was working full time, her child was in full time daycare; when she was at home, she enrolled her child/children in part-time preschool programs.  “When I was at home during the day, I felt like I should be spending time with them,” she explains.

   As an educator, however, she believes: “Kids should be in some type of program — not go straight into kindergarten. It’s important for their social and emotional growth, and to be part of something bigger.”