The Department of Education in Northern Ireland is to consider raising the school starting age to six years old in line with most of Europe.
In a report called Early Years: Zero to Six, minister Caitriona Ruane said those are "vital years" for children.
The report said the workforce needed to be better qualified, in particular to deal with children with special needs.
But it warned there would be little money to make a range of improvements.
The department is to start a debate over whether the school starting age should be raised. It is four years in the United Kingdom, but in most European countries, it is six years.
The department hopes that two-year-old children from deprived backgrounds will be diverted to special programmes in future, instead of taking up free places meant for children in their pre-school year.
Any changes and improvements in early years will probably have to be covered by existing funds because it is unlikely any more money will be available.
NICMA, the Childminding Association, said it was "disappointed" at what it called the "glaring omission" of childcare in the draft Early Years Strategy.
"We were assured by officials that childcare would form a central element of this important document," said NICMA director, Bridget Nodder.
"Instead, there are just a few token mentions of the subject - there has been no attempt whatsoever to address the current lack of good quality, affordable childcare in many parts of Northern Ireland."
However, Early Years, the organisation for young children, welcomed the report.
"We are delighted at the publication of the 0-6 strategy for consultation. We realise that there is more work to be done.
"We look forward to working with the Department of Education to facilitate consultation and build upon the detail," said chief executive Siobhan Fitzpatrick.