General Education

How Preschool Works in Washington

How Preschool Works in Washington
Image from
Noodle Staff profile
Noodle Staff September 2, 2015

A 7-minute guide to preschool and child care in Washington, with a special section on Seattle. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Noodle Programs


Noodle Courses

Article continues here

Takeaway: Child care in Washington is overseen by the Department of Early Learning. In recent years, the state has improved child care options through its Early Achievers rating program. Washington will increase access to preschool through its Early Start Act, and Seattle will soon pilot a city-wide universal pre-K program. There are only two types of licensed child care; these differ primarily in size and location. The state provides robust websites to guide parents through selecting child care and finding helpful resources.


In the past five years, Washington has made big strides in improving the quality of and access to early childhood education. In 2011, it received the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge federal grant, which awarded the state $60 million to improve early childhood education in the state. One of the main initiatives that resulted from this support is the Early Achievers program, a quality rating and improvement system that evaluates the services a provider offers, incentivizes enhancement, and gives guidance to educators. In 2015{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}, 58 percent of child care centers and 35 percent of family child care providers are participating in the Early Achievers programs. The state has also used the federal grant to develop a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment called WaKids; improve professional development opportunities for early childhood educators; and increase the alignment of learning standards.

In June of 2015, the state passed the <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, an ambitious initiative to improve early childhood education in the most vulnerable populations. The act, which will be implemented in the summer of 2016, will ensure that families who are eligible for the Early Start Act (WCCC" target="_blank">Working Child Care Connection, a state subsidy that provides financial help for low-income families who are struggling to afford child care, receive care for all 12 months of the year. The act also requires that all child care providers receiving state subsidies utilize the Early Achievers rating system, and achieve at least a rating of “level 3" by 2020. In exchange, the Early Achievers program will ensure that all subsidized programs are getting increased financial support and professional development.

Additionally, the state has made a commitment to expanding its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program{: target="_blank" } (ECEAP), which provides free state-funded preschool education, health services, and family support to 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. The program, which is similar to the federal Head Start program, offered 1,350 new seats{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} in the 2014–2015 school year, prioritizing the creation of full-day and extended-day programs.

Although Washington state has historically had a low rate of enrollment in its state- or federally-funded child care programs, with only 4.9 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in the 2013–2014 school year, this number is sure to increase with the recent expansions in access. Until now, the state has mostly focused on quality{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}; it meets nine of the ten benchmarks of quality education set by the National Institute for Early Education Research{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

The Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) has a thorough website that helps families understand all facets of early childhood education, providing tips and advice for parents selecting a care provider, as well as advice on how to encourage positive development at home. The Washington Child Care Aware website provides parents with a database that allows them to search for licensed child care providers in their area. Parents must register for an account to use the site. The search allows users to fill in several fields to specify what they are looking for, including the hours of care they need, their location, and the type of program they would want. Results are displayed in an interactive map and list, which provide information on the facility’s contact information, the financial assistance offered, and the Early Achievers rating.

Center-Based Care

Any facility that provides fewer than 24 hours of care on a regular basis to a group of children between ages 1 month and 12 years is considered a child care center. All child care centers must comply with teacher-to-child ratios and maximum group sizes set by the state, which are as follows: 1:4 for infants (1–11 months), with a maximum group size of eight, 1:7 for toddlers (12–29 months), with a maximum group size of 14; and 1:10 for preschool-age children (30 months through 6 years, not attending kindergarten or elementary school), with a maximum group size of 20. For mixed-age groups, the groups should comply with the ratio set for the youngest child in the group. The maximum total size for a child care center will depend on the size of the facility and its amenities.

The director of a child care center must be at least 21 years old and have either a child development associate certificate or a minimum number of college credits in early childhood education. Additionally, the director should have two years of experience working with children the same age as the center serves. A lead teacher, or the staff member in charge of a child or group of children, must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma (or equivalent education). Additionally, lead teachers must have either work experience or documented education in child development, or complete department-approved training. Staff members are required to receive ongoing training on a quarterly basis, or when changes are made to policies or services, and at least one person must know how to administer CPR and first aid.

To receive a license, applicants must pass a background check and complete an orientation provided by the Department of Early Learning. Centers must also comply with requirements about the environment and safety of the facility, the health and nutrition of the food provided, and the type of programming offered. All rules can be found on the Washington State Legislature{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } website.

At first, a center will receive an initial license, which cannot exceed six months but can be renewed for up to two years. If the center proves that it is meeting all requirements, it can apply for a non-expiring license. To maintain a non-expiring license, centers must pay an annual fee, submit an annual declaration about their intent to follow the rules and continue running, and submit a background check for staff members every three years. Additionally, centers receive an unannounced visit at least once a year to ensure that they are complying with all rules. The DEL licensors will use an abbreviated checklist for monitoring in cases where the center has a history of compliance, and a full checklist in cases where the center has not been compliant in the past, or if a complaint is being investigated.

Home-Based Care

Family home child care{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } programs provide care to 12 or fewer children in a provider’s home. The maximum capacity, group size, and staff-to-child ratio of this kind of program depends on licensee’s years of experience and the qualifications and number of other staff members. For instance, a licensee working alone with only one year of experience must maintain a ratio of 1:6 for children ages 0–12 years old, with only two children under 18 months (or three children under age 2, provided that one is walking independently), and a maximum capacity of six. A chart detailing different configurations{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} is on the Washington State Legislature website.

The licensee must be at least 18 years old and have a high school education (or equivalent alternative). The licensee must also complete at minimum of ten hours of department-approved ongoing training a year and be trained to administer first aid and CPR.

As with center-based care, licensees must pass a background check, complete an orientation, and comply with other rules and regulations regarding the safety, environment, and programming provided. All of this information may be found on the state legislature website{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }.

Family home child cares are also first granted an initial license, which cannot exceed six months, and can be renewed for up to two years. After that, the provider can register for a non-expiring license by paying an annual fee, submitting a declaration of intent to follow the regulations and continue running, and complete a background check every three years. Additionally, these providers receive an unnanounced visit by the DEL licensors every 18 months. Again, licensors will use an abbreviated checklist for monitoring if the center has a history of compliance, and a full checklist if the center has not been compliant in the past or if they are investigating a complaint.

Unlicensed Care

Legally unlicensed care is not regulated by the state, meaning that parents are responsible for monitoring its quality, safety, and health. In Washington, unlicensed care is referred to as Family, Friend, and Neighbor care{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}, or FFN. This kind of care is provided on an informal basis by family members, such as grandparents, uncles, and aunts, or friends and neighbors.


In November 2014, voters in Seattle showed their support for a universal pre-K program, which will be starting in September 2015. In its first year, the program will serve 280 students in the areas of the city that have the highest need, providing 14 high-quality preschool classrooms. The program{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} plans to create more seats incrementally until it provides 100 classrooms for 2,000 children in 2018. The financing for this program will come from a four-year property tax levy of $58 million, costing owners of $440,000 homes about $48.40 per year. Tuition will be free or determined on a sliding scale depending on the income of families, but all will receive at least some level of subsidy.

Discover Washington preschools near you using the free Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.


Noodle Courses


Noodle Programs