During the past three decades, extensive literature has accumulated on the early years of life for children. Research findings unequivocally agree that these years are a critical period of
intense learning for children which provides the foundation for later academic and social success. This review explores the literature on the complex relationship between developmental outcomes and attendance at early childhood education and care programs.

0–3 years: within a child care setting

  • Attendance at child care in the first 3 years of life has no strong effects on cognitive and language development for children who are not disadvantaged at home, provided child
    care is of a high quality (CCCH 2007).
  • Quality is key: poor quality child care was found to produce deficits in language and cognitive function for young children (Productivity Commission 2014).
  • Studies on the impact of quantity of child care for 0–3 year olds were inconclusive. Some studies reported better intellectual development, improved independence and improved concentration and sociability at school entry; other studies reported lower-rated learning abilities and an elevated risk of developing antisocial behaviour in the future (Sammons et al. 2012; Sylva et al. 2010).
  • Other reported benefits of attendance at high-quality child care include less impulsivity, more advanced expressive vocabulary, and greater reported social competence (Belsky et al. 2007).
  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds show the greatest gains from attending high-quality child care (Elliott 2006; Moore 2006).

3–5 years: within a preschool setting

  • Stand-alone preschools and day care with preschool programs were both reported to promote cognitive and social development benefits, with evidence of improved performance in standardised tests in the early years of primary school (Warren & Haisken-DeNew 2013).
  • Number of months of attendance at preschool is related to better intellectual development and improved independence, concentration and sociability (Sammons et al. 2012).
  • Full-time attendance at preschool led to no more significant gains than part-time attendance (Sammons et al. 2012).
  • Longitudinal studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of high-quality, focused preschool programs in reducing the effects of social disadvantage, developing children’s social competency and emotional health, and preparing children for a successful transition to school. Benefits were optimised when children from different social backgrounds attended the same preschool program (Sylva et al. 2004).
  • Children living in disadvantaged communities, those not proficient in English, and Indigenous children were identified as particularly vulnerable and most likely to benefit from high-quality preschool programs (Baxter & Hand 2013; Hewitt & Walter 2014).
  • Programs aimed at increasing the attendance of these vulnerable children at preschool programs need to be culturally sensitive (Harrison et al. 2012; Mann et al. 2011).