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Noodle Staff
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

A 3-minute guide to preschool and child care in Iowa. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Takeaway: Both center-based and family-based care must meet strict guidelines, mostly concerning the level of education and experience the caregivers have. Home-based care, called “child development homes," is by far the most popular option in Iowa. Licensed programs are required to be inspected by several government offices. Iowa’s preschool search allows parents to review each care facility’s quality rating, as determined by the state. Iowa has also been steadily improving the access and quality of pre-K in the state, introducing statewide care for 4-year-olds in 2008.


Iowa has stringent guidelines for center-based and home-based preschools alike. The state has a useful search function that can be refined by location and provider type, including unlicensed and license-exempt programs. There are additional filters for special services and quality ratings issued by the state. Search results are displayed on an interactive map and, once selected, results display operating status, type of care, capacity, rates, hours of operation, and contact information.

Total enrollment in Iowa pre-K programs has recently amounted to about 50 percent. In order to raise enrollment and ensure kindergarten preparedness, Iowa introduced voluntary statewide pre-K for all 4-year olds in 2008. The state now ranks in the top ten in terms of access to pre-K and has shown marked improvements in quality, meeting seven of ten national benchmarks. All pre-K licensing and inspection is overseen by the state.

Center-Based Care

Iowa currently licenses 1,400 centers across the state. While preschool centers are required to have at least seven children, most programs have dozens of children enrolled. Maximum capacity is determined by age, facility size, and license. These centers have very strict requirements for providers and teachers, who must have a combination of several years of experience and a higher degree of some form, ideally in early childhood education. Centers must have a director and an onsite supervisor. All licensed centers are subject to inspections by the Department of Human Services, the Department of Public Health, and the State Fire Marshall. Iowa assigns licensed facilities a Quality Rating System, which offers parents a sense of which providers have not only met the basic requirements for licensure, but have also exceeded these requirements.

All centers must observe suitable caregiver-to-child ratios. These are 1:4 for children ages 2 weeks to 2 years, 1:6 for 2-year-olds, 1:8 for 3-year-olds, 1:12 for 4-year-olds, and 1:15 for children ages 5 to 10.

Home-Based Care

With more than 3,600 licensed “child development homes," family programs are the most common preschool options in Iowa. Any provider serving more five children is required to be licensed; capacity usually ranges from eight to 16 children, depending on the number of caregivers present. Staff members are required to have several years of child development experience and are often required to have a child-related degree, as well.

Unlicensed Care

Any home-based provider serving fewer than five children is considered a “child care home" and is given the option to be licensed, but licensure is not required. If unlicensed, child care homes are not overseen and regulated by the state and are only subject to personnel background checks. Providers who are relatives of the children are exempt from licensing, as are religious organizations.

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