Daycares, Preschools, and VPK – Understanding Child Care Options in Florida

Childcare… Daycare… Preschool… Headstart… School Readiness… VPK… there are many different childcare terms in Florida. We know it can be a bit confusing, especially if you’ve recently moved to Florida or you’re finding care for your first child.

Below you’ll find a helpful explanation of the different types of facilities and childcare programs to help you figure out the best option for your children. The Early Learning Coalition is also a great resource for finding childcare and early learning programs.

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Types of Licensed Child Care Facilities in Florida

We’ll start with the types of providers regulated by the Florida Department of Children and Families. There are two main categories of providers – child care facilities and home day cares.

Child Care Facility

These are facilities where child care is provided – they may be privately owned, located at a church, located at a private school, located at a public elementary school, or at a charter school. Child Care Facilities in Florida fall into two licensing categories:

  • Licensed centers must submit a complete licensure application and pass an initial inspection by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) or the local licensing agency. Once the license is issued, these programs are inspected a minimum of three times per year to ensure health and safety standards continue to be met.
  • Religious-Exempt Centers – Some faith-based child care centers are eligible for exemption from DCF child care inspections. These centers must be an integral part of a church or faith-based school and must be accredited by or a member of a state-recognized accrediting body and follow other guidelines set by the state.

Family Day Care Home / Large Family Child Care Home

This is child care that takes place in someone’s home. There are licensing standards set by the State of Florida for day care homes including the child to provider ratio, maximum number of children based on age, discipline policy, background screening, supervision, animals and hazardous materials, play areas, swimming pools, and more.

Florida law states: “Family day care home” means an occupied residence in which child care is regularly provided for children from at least two unrelated families and which receives a payment, fee, or grant for any of the children receiving care, whether or not operated for profit.

Childcare in your own Home

Florida does not license or regulate the use of a babysitter, Nanny, Au Pair, or care provided by a friend or relative in your own home. These are all options for childcare at any age. {There are other guidelines for using a Nanny or Au Pair but they are not specifically licensed by DCF and are not part of this article for the purposes of finding childcare outside the home}.

Daycare vs. Preschool – What is the difference?

In Florida, there are no laws or guidelines that differentiate between a daycare or preschool, they fall under the category of child care facility. However, these are some factors to consider when looking for a childcare provider that is the right fit for your family. Below are some general statements to help you think through the type of care you need:

  • Operating Hours / Days – Daycares are more likely to be open longer hours and are geared towards a working parent’s schedule. Preschools may be part time programs, some follow a public school calendar or close on holidays.
  • Ages – Day care centers are more likely to have a wider age range – ideal if you want to stay at the same place for multiple years or have children in different age groups. Preschools tend to be for ages 3 – 5, and some require children to be potty trained.
  • Curriculum – Most day cares focus on playtime, napping, and keeping kids healthy, safe and happy. Preschools are more likely to focus on pre-academic skills and may incorporate a specific curriculum or learning style. There are exceptions in both cases, and there are also Florida standards for curriculum for specific programs such as VPK and School Readiness.

The Early Learning Coalition also offers a statewide Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) Service that can help you understand the child care options available and give you resources to help select a provider that will meet your needs. If you are in Polk County visit the Polk ELC Website to learn more, outside of Polk County visit the state ELC website to find your local coalition.

PreKindergarden + Child Care Programs in Florida

Some child care facilities are private pay only (out of pocket). Others accept different types of financial assistance or offer specific programs such as VPK, Head Start, and School Readiness.

Below is a brief explanation of each program with a link to additional information. They all require an application and have specific eligibility guidelines.

VPK – Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program

VPK is a FREE Pre-K program for 4 year olds in Florida. Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Programs are almost exclusively found at child care facilities (on a rare occasion a home daycare). VPK can be found at churches, child care businesses, private schools, and public schools. Florida has a set of standards and progress reporting requirements that all Pre-K programs must follow.

A child is eligible to start VPK the school year they turn 4 years old on or before Sept. 1. If their fourth birthday falls between February 2 and September 1 in a calendar year, parents have the option to postpone enrolling their child in VPK that year and wait until the following year when their child is 5.

VPK is a part-time program that covers approximately 3 hours per day, but providers often offer a full-day program for an additional cost. You will need to apply for VPK in the spring of the year you plan to start the program, we have a separate article that explains more on how to find a VPK provider and how to apply for Florida VPK.

It is important to note that not all child care facilities who have a Pre-K 4 program are VPK Providers. You will need to confirm with the facility or do a search on the ELC or DCF website.

Title 1 PK

Title 1 PK is a federally funded, free full-day preschool program for 4-year-old children residing in select Title 1 school zones. Due to strict funding guidelines for Title 1 PreK programs, only children residing in that school’s zone can apply to attend a Title 1 PK program in Polk County. Parents must reside within the school zone of the enrolling school and must apply for a VPK Certificate of Eligibility before completing the Title 1 VPK application. Use the Zone Finder to determine your zoned school then visit the Polk Preschool website for a list of Title 1 PK schools. Learn more in our Florida VPK article.

(Outside Polk County – contact your local ELC or School Board)

Head Start

Head Start is an early education program available at no cost to income-eligible families with children ages 3-4. In Polk County, most of our Head Start programs are located at local elementary schools. To learn more visit the Polk Preschool Programs website.

(Outside Polk County – contact your local ELC or School Board)

Programs for Preschool Students with Disabilities

Students must be evaluated and have an Individual Educational Plan (IEP) to qualify for the services listed below.

Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Prekindergarten – ESE PreK services are provided to children from 3-5 years of age who have an IEP and meet the criteria for any of the following disabilities as defined by the Florida Department of Education and in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA):  Developmental Delay, Language Impairment, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Deaf or Hard of Hearing, Dual-Sensory Impairment, Intellectual Disabilities, Orthopedic Impairment, Other Health Impairment, Traumatic Brain Injury, Speech Impairment, Visual Impairment.

Specialized Instructional Services Providers (VPK-SIS) – A child who has an IEP and is age-eligible for VPK can choose specialized instructional services (SIS) instead of a traditional VPK Program. SIS can provide specific therapy including speech therapy, physical or occupational therapy, ABA services, and more from a certified or licensed professional.

Visit the Polk Schools ESE PreK website or the VPK-SIS Website for more information on screening and other FAQ’s.

Private Pay Daycare or Preschool

Many parents opt for “private pay daycare” which means you pay out of pocket. If you are not interested in or eligible for any of the programs above, almost every child care provider offers a private pay option, and some daycares/preschools only offer private pay.

There is no application required to qualify, contact a daycare or preschool directly for their prices and information on how to sign up or join the wait list.

Child Care Assistance in Florida

If you need assistance paying for childcare so you can go to work or school, the Early Learning Coalition can help. Learn more about programs that offer reduced cost or free childcare in Florida.

School Readiness

School Readiness offers financial assistance to support parents in becoming financially self-sufficient. Funds are available to help working families pay for childcare including wraparound VPK, daycare, preschool, or after-school care. Copayments are assessed based on a sliding fee scale. 

Eligibility is based on total family income and parents must be working or going to school to receive a daycare voucher in Florida. School readiness is not limited to preschool, the program serves children from 6 weeks through 12 years of age and after-school care may also be eligible. Contact your local Early Learning Coalition to learn more or start the application process.

School Readiness facilities are not limited to families enrolled in this program, the designation simply means that they accept school readiness funds, which come with certain guidelines the facility must follow.

Free Preschool Programs

Head Start programs (ages 3-5, based on income) and Title 1 PK programs (ages 4-5, based on zoned school) also provide full-day care at no cost to parents. See the information above or contact the Early Learning Coalition or local school district to find out if you are eligible.

VPK Programs provide free preschool, typically for a 1/2 day program, and all families are eligible, regardless of income.

Childcare Options by Age

If you’re still unsure what daycare or preschool programs you are eligible for, below we break down the options by age.

Newborn – 2 Years Old

Child Care Options:
Daycare/Child Care Facility (Business or Church)
• Private School with Daycare
• Home Daycare

Assistance Programs:
School Readiness (income based)

Age 3

Child Care Options:
Daycare/Preschool/Child Care Facility (Business or Church)
• Private School with PreK-3
• Charter School with PreK-3
• Head Start Program (income based)
• Home Daycare

Assistance Programs:
Head Start program (income based)
• School Readiness (income based)

Age 4

Child Care Options:
• Voluntary Prekindergarden (VPK) at an elementary school or private provider
• Title 1 PK (if zoned for a Title 1 elementary school)
• PreK-4 at a Preschool, Church Preschool, Private School, or Charter School that does not take VPK Vouchers
• Head Start program (income based)
Home Daycare

Assistance Programs:
• Florida VPK
• Title 1 PK (if zoned for a Title 1 elementary school)
• Head Start program (income based)
• School Readiness (income based)

How to Apply for Child Care Programs in Polk County

All information below is local to our readers in Lakeland + Polk County, FL. If you are not in Polk County, visit the Florida ELC website to find your local Early Learning Coalition.

The Early Learning Coalition of Polk County offers free Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) to all families seeking quality and affordable child care options and local community resources. This is a FANTASTIC resource for families in Polk County and we strongly recommend calling the ELC first to explore your options. Their staff is specially trained to provide a variety of assistance to parents and guardians seeking child care. You can reach ELC at 863-577-2450 or visit the Polk ELC website.

How to find a preschool or daycare near you:

  • Florida Child Care Search – The Florida Department of Children and Families has a database of all licensed child care providers in Florida. We recommend using it on a desktop to fully take advantage of the search features. You can search by zip code or city (recommended), and then use the filter bar to narrow down your search if you need VPK, a provider that acceps School Readiness, full day, food served, etc. This is also where you can see past inspection reports for specific facilities.
  • Lakeland Moms Facebook Group – Join the group and search past posts for recommended daycares and preschools, or post with what age and location you’re searching for.
  • Childcare, Preschool & VPK Directory – We have a list of reader recommended and self submitted childcare providers in our directory, but it is not comprehensive, there are many more that have not yet been added (there are almost 400 licensed sites in Polk County).
  • As mentioned above, the Early Learning Coalition is also a great resource in your child care search. The ELC website has helpful guidelines on picking a provider and they may be able to help you find facilities with availability.

We know it can be difficult to find a daycare with openings. All private businesses, churches, and home based daycares have their own admission process, and you will need to contact them directly to inquire about availability, pricing, and other relevant information. Our best advice is to start making phone calls and get on the waitlist as soon as possible if you have a specific daycare or preschool in mind. It can be time-consuming but worth it when you find a place where your child will thrive!

Visit our Childcare Directory for a list of local providers or our full Childcare Guide to explore other options.

Childcare Guide

Check out our Childcare Guide for Lakeland + Polk County for other childcare topics including preschools, daycare, VPK, after school care, school holiday camps, and more.