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The difficulty of describing day care

September 25, 2017
Mark Peters
The Boston Globe

A NEW BILL in Congress could expand tax credits for families who use child care. Or should we call it “day care”? Or “preschool”? Or “nursery school”? Or “pre-K”?

The terms that policy makers apply to early-childhood education evolve over time, and not just due to random shifts in bureaucratic fashion. While terms such as “day care” and “early learning” describe similar services, their names reflect entirely different world views about the role of women in society and about how very young children should be spending their time.

According to Merriam-Webster, the term “day care,” which suggests that someone is minding the kids when parents can’t, has been around since at least 1898; the term preschool, which suggests a more academic focus, was in use by 1914. “When I was a little girl, my mother was a ‘nursery school teacher,’ ” said Ellen Frede, a senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. The preferred term in any given era, she explained, depended on whether the current emphasis was on freeing women to work or educating young children. Those issues are part of why Barbara Beatty — a Wesleyan professor and author of “Preschool Education in America” — calls the field “a giant patchwork” and a “politicized minefield.”