How Missing Preschool During the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected Kids

High quality daycare and preschool can be a huge benefit to kids, exposing their immune system to lots of challenges, and facilitating their verbal, emotional, physical, and social development. But what happens when daycares and preschools shut down, as they did during the early parts of the COVID-19 pandemic?

In a study published in May in the journal Infant and Child Development, researchers from the United Kingdom looked into the impact of preschool—called nursery in the UK—closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we’ll discuss what they found as well as some of the general benefits of preschool and daycare and how to find a high-quality spot for your infant or toddler to go.

The authors of the new study surveyed 189 families with children between 8 and 36 months old about their socioeconomic and demographic status, use of childcare, such as nannies, daycare, and nursery, during the pandemic, and the languages and words used in the home and by their child. They found that the vocabulary that children understood was greater in kids that did participate in at least one day of formal childcare.

For instance, kids who went to school or daycare or had a nanny one day a week understood about 24 more words than children who didn’t have formal childcare. A second day of formal childcare resulted in even greater gains: these children could be expected to understand 48 more words than peers. The gains were more pronounced for younger children and kids from families with fewer resources. The researchers also determined that children who were able to experience formal childcare during COVID-19 lockdowns showed growth in cognitive executive functions, such as following directions and managing their emotions, regardless of their age and socioeconomic status.

This research confirms what many studies had already shown: high-quality childcare is good for children’s development. But how does one go about finding this childcare? In the second half of this post, we’ll go through ways to find childcare, how to determine its quality, and what the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may mean for childcare.

To find childcare, start with people you know. Other families in your community have been using childcare for years. Talk to friends and neighbors, ask in virtual parent groups, and read reviews online. An internet search of childcare centers in your area will also give you an idea about what is nearby.

Once you’ve found a few childcare centers, read the information that childcare providers make available online. Look at their public policies, information they provide about ratios of children to caregivers and about their philosophies. High-quality childcare centers generally have a low child to caregiver ratio (this is even more important the younger your baby is) and understand that the primary way that children learn is through play. Also consider the cost of a preschool or daycare. Part time preschool that’s only a few mornings each week generally costs less than full time daycare, but it really depends upon the area in which you live and the type of programs you’re considering.

The next step is typically to contact the centers about their availability for a child your child’s age and to take a tour. While some places may offer in-person tours, a lot of centers are offering tours virtually because of COVID-19. Ask any questions that you have. A few examples of things you might inquire about: how the center handles discipline and interactions between children, what their illness policies are, how the teachers communicate with parents, whether or not food is provided and if they accommodate food allergies in children.

During your interactions with the center, pay attention to how you feel about the place and how your child reacts to the associated people—both adults and kids—that they meet. If there is a waiting list at your preferred childcare center but another has openings, you must decide whether having care now or waiting for the first center is worth it. With the rise in COVID-19 variants, it’s even more important to have a center whose leadership you trust to keep your child safe.

  1. Davies, C., Hendry, A., Gibson, S. P., Gliga, T., McGillion, M., & Gonzalez-Gomez, N. (2021). Early childhood education and care (ECEC) during COVID-19 boosts growth in language and executive function. Infant and Child Development.
Abby Olena
Dr. Abby Olena has a PhD in Biological Sciences from Vanderbilt University. She lives with her husband and children in North Carolina, where she writes about science and parenting, produces a conversational podcast, and teaches prenatal yoga.

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