I had a client recently asked me what was the difference between a WordPress Child Theme and the staging site feature on WP Engine and which is better for testing plugins and how to access a child theme.
At first, I thought it was a really simple answer. But the more I thought about it and put myself in her shoes, I knew then why she was so confused.
Clear difference between a Child Theme and the Staging Site
A child theme only… only… only inherits the functionality and the styles from your parent theme.
Here’s an example: When you first purchase a parent theme – let’s say it’s a Genesis theme. That theme will come prepackaged with all the fonts, colors, the width of pages and so on.
So when you create a child theme that child theme will carry over all of those fonts, colors, page widths etc.
The reason why you create a child theme is to ensure that any changes or added styles and functionality you apply will not be lost when the parent theme has an update.
Now the question about accessing the child theme is simply activating it from your Themes panel in the backend of your site (the same way you normally activate themes).
On to staging and the difference – On the staging site, you can make changes to your site the same way you would do it on a child theme…
…however, the purpose of the staging site (but not limited to) is so you can test new themes, plugins OR rebuild your entire website without disturbing the live site.
It’s a good idea to test plugins on the staging site (but not required) because if you choose a plugin and it breaks the site, then it won’t affect your live site it will only affect the staging site…
…and if it does break the Staging site, then it’s not a big deal because you can copy the live site to the staging site again and start over.
Think of the WP Engine staging site as a quarantine facility where you can test different plugins, themes, coding…
…in which – if a problem arises, then it won’t affect the rest of the population. Meaning your live website.