A guide to preschool in Germany, from nurseries to kindergartens.
Preschool care options in Germany range from structured kindergarten groups to smaller, privately run child-minding services. In Germany every child has a legal right to attend kindergarten from the age of three until the age of six, when compulsory education begins. Some kindergartens also accept children under the age of three in toddler groups. The kindergartens are run by local authorities, religious organisations (generally protestant or Catholic churches) or by private associations.
There are several types of care:
- Kinderkrippe (creche): specifically designed for babies and children up to three years. It is not free and costs may vary according to region.
- Kindergarten: Kindergarten (for children between 3–6 years) is not a part of the regular public school system and is not required or free. Tuition is normally based on income. Space is often limited and even though it’s not mandatory, the majority of three to six year olds attend them.
- Kitas (Kindertagesstätte, children’s daycare center): offer after-school and sometimes pre-school activities for children, for quite young children up to age 11 or 12 years. Fees apply and they are a popular form of daycare in Germany.
- Schulhort – after-school daycare for primary school pupils.
Kindergartens in Germany
Places at kindergartens have traditionally been at a premium due to shortages and many schools have long waiting lists. Therefore it is sensible to enroll your child at the earliest possible opportunity. Places at kindergartens are allocated in some areas from spring for the following school year, which begins in August or September, depending on the region. If you arrive during the school year, it is still worth contacting local kindergartens because many schools will accept children during the year, especially in cases where parents have moved to the area, so do contact schools to check.
Since 2007 the government has made a concerted effort to address the shortage of places and from 2013 all municipalities will be legally obliged to provide places for at least one third of all children up to the age of three – equal to 750,000 crêche spaces. The intention is to make it easier for mothers and fathers to combine working and raising children.
To enroll your child in a kindergarten you will need a voucher (Betreuunggutschein), which is issued by the Youth Welfare Office (Jugendamt) of your local residents’ registration office. Once you receive this you just need to contact the local kindergarten, but you must make sure you do this within 2 months of being issued with the voucher.
Children attend kindergarten either for half-days (8am–12 pm or 2 pm–5 pm) or for full days (Tagesstättenplatz). Unsurprisingly full day care is more expensive. Lunch may not necessarily be provided so you will need to check whether you should pack food for your child to bring with them. Some kindergartens are open all day for children from three to six years of age or have day-care facilities for children between the hours of 7am and 5pm. Places are often limited however and can be quite expensive.
Kindergartens sometimes divide children into groups by age, which has the advantage of allowing them to offer some pre-schooling to children aged five and six.
Bilingual childcare centres are becoming more popular in Germany, particularly in larger urban centres. More information can be found by contacting the Association for Multilingual Childcare Institutions and Schools (Verein für Mehrsprachigkeit an Kindertageseinrichtungen und Schulen e.V.).
Kindergartens are intended to help children learn to express themselves in age-appropriate ways, to understand their environment and to interact with others. Centres emphasise the child’s social development and often concentrates on structured play, arts and crafts, music and helping coordination. The type of learning is different to the more formal lessons that children receive when they enter compulsory education, such as the alphabet and counting.
Prior to entering Grundschule (primary or elementary school), most children attend a so-called Kita (Kindertagesstätte), which is a kind of pre-school. Childcare (daycare) services are also provided at Kitas, which offer after-school and sometimes pre-school activities for children. The maximum age is about 11 or 12 with many Kitas offering facilities for young children. A fee is charged for children attending these very popular forms of daycare in Germany. There was a political discussion in Germany with the objective to provide free Kita ‘passes’ to families in the lower income brackets.
Schulhort is designed for pupils of elementary school (Grundschule–up to 11-12 years) to provide daycare for pre and after school hours.
Childcare options for very young children
Parents with children too young for kindergarten (1 – 3 years of age) can avail of nurseries with day-care services. Places are very sought after so apply early. Youth welfare offices generally allocate the places, prioritising according to urgency.
Another popular choice for German parents of young children is private childcare/nannies (Tagesmütter). These generally take care of groups of 4 – 5 children in their homes (usually aged between 8 weeks and 3 years). The child minders must go through training and be certified by Child Care Services to run private childcare.
Your Youth Welfare Office can provide you with details of local child-minding agencies or you can check out listings in the weekend regional newspapers. You must apply for a voucher from the Youth Welfare Office in order to place your child with a nanny. Additionally, for short-term requirements parents can turn to baby-sitters, either recommended by neighbours or friends or by the German Association for the Protection of children (www.kinderschutzbund.de), who regularly recommend local baby-sitters.
Childcare costs in Germany
The cost of childcare is based on the income of the parents, number of children and hours required per day. Typically kindergartens charge between EUR 80 – 120 per month, generally determined by the parents’ income, number of children and hours of care required. Private establishments will usually charge considerably more.
The German government is keen to encourage parents to have children and provides tax credits to help with childcare costs. It also provides a financial incentive where a parent who takes a career break to raise children will receive 67 percent of their net income (up to a maximum of EUR 1,800 per month). Additionally, the government also directly subsidises some kindergartens run by religious communities.
Further information on kindergartens and other day-care centres for children in your local area, including addresses and telephone numbers, can be obtained from the local youth welfare offices run by municipal or local authorities.
How to prepare your child for their first day
Make a big fuss about the upcoming start day. Take them to the building to see where the school is and let them peek in the windows. You can talk about how your child is getting older and is a big kid now. Most importantly, be positive.
The first day can be overwhelming for both parent and child. Here are some tips on how to manage it:
- Start off with a good breakfast.
- Remind the child about how exciting it is to go to school (that they have visited, etc).
- Perhaps offer a present at the end of the day for good behavior.
- If your child is potty-trained, make sure to show them the bathroom and explain who will take them while you are away.
- Reassure them that you will be there to collect them at the end of the playtime.
- Expect to leave at 9 am regardless of how your child is reacting – the teachers are trained to help kids settle in.
- Allow time on the first day to meet with the teachers to go over specific needs (dummy, favorite toy, toilet-training information, etc).
- Label clothing and bags with your child’s name
- Take a fruit or snack along – some provide snacks and some don’t
- Take along a pair of soft indoor shoes for your child
- Come prepared with emergency and doctor contact information (you will complete a form on your first day)