Observation. I agree that, as unhelpful as this is, “the vibe” of the place is far more important than any pedagogy, philosophy or even set of rules. You want a place where both you and your child are comfortable. There’s no way to figure this out without spending some time there.
I can tell you a few of the things that have made me run away from preschools:
Prayer at lunch at a publicly funded preschool that did not advertise itself as religious in any way. While I wasn’t entirely opposed to the prayer per se, it did destroy my trust in them being honest and law-abiding. If they’re willing to discard that rule, what others are they also not following that I don’t know about? What if they decide they don’t really need to wash their hands before preparing food, or that kids don’t really need seatbelts for field trips in the preschool’s minivan?
A school with a Montessori sign and name in which neither the director nor the teachers could tell me a single thing about the Montessori philosophy or how it was utilized in the classroom. I got a wave of the arm and a vague, “Well, we have these Montessori toys over there…” It was obvious from observation that they were NOT child directed or following Montessori precepts at all. Again, I don’t really care so much about that (I’m not a die hard Montessori Mom or anything), but if they didn’t know that and used the name anyway, what else were they lying about?
A school at which teachers used shaming techniques and physical restriction to discipline kids. If they were yelling and grabbing kids and shoving them around when a prospective parent was standing 5 feet away observing, what the hell were they doing when no outside adults were there?! :eek:
To directly answer the question in the OP, the thing that daycares/preschool do “better” for socialization and development is present more opportunities for practice and more points of view to learn from, as well as a space where (as you’ve already noted) the kid can try activities and toys that you don’t have the patience or tools for.
Unless you’ve got siblings at home or you babysit for others, your kid probably doesn’t interact with other kids on a daily basis, and that can be problematic when they get thrust into kindergarten or first grade in today’s schools. No matter what the bells and whistles of any particular programs claims, the things that kids really learn in daycare/preschool are how to sit when it’s time to sit, how to listen, how to speak, how to clean up after yourself and how to give other people the same consideration you want yourself. Developmentally, according to Erikson, they’re learning Autonomy - how to do things by themselves as they explore the world, like putting on coats and passing out milk and tidying up the blocks - and Shame and Doubt, which sounds awful in those words but what he really means is that ideally you learn it’s okay to ask for help when you really need it.
These things are really hard to learn! The more opportunities in a day, the more practice. If you don’t get these lessons until you’re 5 or 6, you’re a good three years behind most of the other kids.