When looking for a preschool for your child, your most important goal is finding a program where your child will be safe, well cared for, and happy. Two related questions that may quickly come up are: How many hours per week will my child spend in preschool or child care, and how much will it cost?

How many hours of preschool or child care are best for you and your child?

Consider your work schedule

Determining how many hours of preschool are best will depend on several factors. Your work schedule may dictate how many hours a week your child spends in a preschool or child care center. But in some families with two parents working full-time, adults may arrange the schedule with the help of family, friends or caregivers so that a child spends only a few hours weekly in care outside the home. Families with a stay-at-home parent may decide to enroll a child in a preschool program two or three mornings a week so that he has opportunities to play and learn with children his age.

Consider your child’s temperament

Your child’s temperament may also affect your decision on preschool hours. If she is generally easygoing, sociable and quick to adapt to unfamiliar situations, she may adjust well to spending several hours a day in a preschool program. On the other hand, a child who is shy, inflexible or has a hard time adjusting to new people and situations, may do better with fewer hours of care away from home. According to Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, veteran preschool directors and authors of Practical Wisdom for Parents: Raising Self-Confident Children in the Preschool Years, some children simply aren’t developmentally ready to be in a preschool program, especially if they’re younger than age 2½.

Preschools, child care centers and family child care programs may offer full- and part-time options.

In full-day programs for preschool-age children, the more structured or academic learning activities are often scheduled in the morning, and parents may be offered the choice of mornings only or full-time care. In some half-day preschool programs, parents have a choice of either a morning or afternoon session. Still other programs will offer a schedule of two, three or five full or half-days a week. As you visit programs you’re considering for your child, ask what the scheduling options are.

How much will your child’s preschool or child care program cost?

Costs for preschool and child care programs vary, both at the national level and locally. The National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (NACCRRA) issued a report on the average cost, by state, for full-time child care centers and family child care homes in 2007. The three states with the highest average costs were Massachusetts, Wisconsin and New York, where full-time costs for a child care center averaged more than $10,000 a year. Costs for family child care homes in these states averaged $8,100 to $9,100.

At the other end of the scale were Mississippi, West Virginia and Louisiana, where the average cost of center-based care ranged from $3,300 to $4,600 per year. Family home care in these states averaged $3,300 to about $4,000. Costs for full-time care in the other 44 states ranged from about $5,000 to $8,000 per year for child care centers, and about $4,500 to $6,000 for family child care homes.

Since these are only statewide averages, there may be big differences in the cost of child care from region to region within a state, and even from place to place within your community. Some 38 states now fund prekindergarten programs, usually just for 4-year-olds. As part of the public school system, these programs are free. To encourage diversity among children in their programs, some preschools or child care programs offer scholarships or lower tuition rates for a limited number of children, based on family income.

Local child care resource and referral agencies are good sources of information about all types of preschool and child care programs available in a community. To locate a resource and referral agency in your area, go to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.