Early care and education: frequently asked questions

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

What kinds of programs can I find that will provide child care and educational experiences for my child before he/she goes to kindergarten?

There is a variety of types of early care programs from which Pennsylvania parents can choose. These include child care programs (also known as day care) that are licensed by the state Department of Public Welfare (DPW) and nursery, preschool and pre-kindergarten programs that may be licensed by the state Department of Education (DOE). Some early care programs are licensed by both DPW and DOE.

Additionally, children may attend a Head Start program. Some children remain with relatives or neighbors for their early years.

Choosing the right program for your child and family is one of the most important decisions you will make. In order to do this, you should understand the differences among the programs.

Can you explain to me the different kinds of state-regulated child care programs?

There are three types of programs that are licensed by DPW. These are licensed child care centers, licensed group homes, and registered family day care homes. These child care programs are often the choice of working families because they offer early education programming in addition to providing care for 10 or more hours per day.

Licensed child care centers must comply with state regulations that establish minimum health, safety, and caregiving training standards. They are inspected by DPW at least once per year. The maximum number of children permitted depends on the size of the facility and the number of staff.

Licensed group day care homes are also inspected by DPW at least once per year. They may be in a person’s home or in a separate facility. Group day care homes serve from 7 to 12 children (unrelated to the provider). Like the larger child care center programs, these facilities must comply with state regulations that establish minimum health, safety, and caregiving training standards.

Registered family day care homes also must comply with state regulations that establish minimum health, safety, and are giving training standards. They are located in the provider’s home. The provider may care for up to six children (unrelated to the provider) and her own children or grandchildren. DPW does not inspect the home before it opens but does conduct on-site visits to a random list of family day care homes every year. These programs often have more flexible care schedules offering care on weekends and evenings.

How are preschools or nursery schools different from these child care program?

Preschool, pre-kindergarten and nursery school programs provide educational experiences for children. They are also called “early education programs.” Some programs may only operate on a part-time basis. They may or may not be regulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education or the Department of Public Welfare. In Philadelphia, the School District provides a free pre-kindergarten program, Bright Futures, to some four- and five-year-olds.

Head Start and Early Head Start are income-eligible, federally and state funded child development programs that provide a broad range of services to meet educational and other needs of young children and their families. These programs are available to families living at or below poverty. For example, a family of four must earn less than $20,000 annually to be eligible for Head Start.

Don’t some people just take care of a few children in their homes?

Yes. This is relative/neighbor care – sometimes known as “kith and kin care.” It is legally unregulated care. These caregivers might be relatives, friends, or neighbors. They cannot care for more than three unrelated children. This is the only regulation that a relative/neighbor provider must meet. DPW does not inspect or visit these homes. This type of child care can either be in the provider’s home or the child’s home.

How do I know if a program is good?

The quality of your child’s early education or child care program is very important to his/her healthy development and school readiness. Here are some general guidelines to help you determine quality.

Look for a program or provider that offers engaging and appropriate activities in stimulating settings that facilitate healthy growth, social, emotional and cognitive development, and prepare children for or promote their success in school. (See the checklist)

Key factors to determine quality include:

  • Staff qualifications and training
  • Low staff turnover
  • Emphasis on multiple areas of child development (cognitive, language, social, and emotional)
  • Stimulating environments
  • Small child/teacher ratios
  • Close, caring child/teacher relationship
  • Parent involvement.

In addition you can look for programs that are participating in Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS Program and/or are accredited.

Keystone STARS (Standards, Training, Assistance, Resources, and Support) is Pennsylvania’s program to improve the quality of child care. STARS is a voluntary program that recognizes providers who exceed the minimum health and safety requirements set by DPW.

STARS establishes a quality rating system, much like restaurants and hotels, beginning with the “Start With STARS” level and progressing up through a STAR One, Two, Three, or Four designation. Each STAR designation has its own research-based performance standards or benchmarks that are linked to improving outcomes for children.

You can also look for programs that have earned “accreditation” – a process through which child care programs voluntarily meet specific standards to receive endorsement from a professional agency. Some organizations that offer accreditation for child care are:

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
  • National Accreditation Commission for Early Care and Education Programs (NAC)
  • National AfterSchool Association (NAA)
  • National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC).

Where can I get more information to help me make a good child care decision?

Your local Child Care Information Services (CCIS) agency provides resource and referral service to parents to help them learn about what to look for in quality child care. To find your local CCIS call 1-888-461-KIDS (5437). They also have a database of every licensed and regulated program in Pennsylvania and can provide you with a list of programs that will best meet your family and child’s needs. In addition, they have information on Head Start and the School District’s Bright Futures Programs.

Is there any financial help available?

The CCIS can also assist parents who need help paying their child care costs. If you are worried about how to afford good child care, federal and state funds subsidize child care costs for eligible families. Many working parents are eligible for help paying for child care bills if they meet the income guidelines:

Family Size

Maximum Yearly
Family Income
(May 2005)















(Note: The above information provides only general guidelines. Other conditions may apply.)

Limited federal and state funding may mean that families will be on a waiting list for subsidized funding. Some providers offer scholarships or sliding scale fees to their parents who need financial help while they are waiting for subsidized funding or if they are not eligible for that assistance.

Prepared by Philadelphia Alliance for Better Child Care.

Sources: www.philadelphiachildcare.org; www.nieer.org; www.childcareaware.org; www.dpw.state.pa.us