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Noodle Staff
Noodle Expert Member

December 18, 2019

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

Takeaway: Most programs serving four or more children are required to be licensed in Wisconsin. License-exempt programs may opt to apply for certification, a designation that indicates some level of state oversight. The state’s preschool search tool is simple, clear, and easy-to-use; parents can even view a provider’s star quality rating, as determined by the YoungStar system.Wisconsin’s universal pre-K, which was introduced in the 1980s, offers pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state. That said, the pre-K system only meets 50 percent of federal quality benchmarks, so the state has pushed for a stronger “community approach" in developing new pre-K sites.


Wisconsin licenses center-based and home-based programs, in the latter case, those serving four or more children, but no more than eight total. Wisconsin’s database search is well-designed and very useful for parents. It offers a detailed location-based search that also provides filters for licensing types and programs. Results offer information about regulations, contact details, and the quality of programs; the last of these is based on a rating system called YoungStar.

Wisconsin has basic standards for pre-K that are easy to follow. Wisconsin was one of the first states in the country to introduce universal pre-K when it did so in the 1980s. It offers universal pre-K for all 4-year-olds in the state; the program has been dubbed “4K." In 2008, Wisconsin implemented a <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } that gave subsidies to schools registering as 4K centers. Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s pre-K system only met five of ten federal benchmarks for quality. In order to create more consistency, the state [recommends](" target="_blank">grant program a “community approach" to setting up universal pre-K facilities, urging all local early childhood players to be communicate about best practices in caring for children. One hundred centers — about 30 percent of all licensed universal pre-K programs in the state — use a community approach.

Center-Based Care

There are three types of licensed programs: group child care, family child care, and day camps. These programs differ based upon the number of children in care: group child care is for nine or more children; family child care allows for up to eight children; day camps are seasonal, largely outdoors, and for four or more children.

Licensed programs require personnel to have some early childhood experience or training, as approved by the state, and parents are allowed to visit child care centers at any time. Group child care usually takes place in a facility and is for nine children or more; maximum capacities vary depending on the size and staffing of a given center.

All centers must observe suitable caregiver-to-child ratios. These are 1:4 for children ages 0 to 2, with a maximum group size of eight; 1:6 for children ages 2 to 2.5, with a maximum group size of 12; 1:8 for children ages 2.5 to 3,with a maximum group size of 16; 1:10 for 3-year-olds, with a maximum group size of 20; 1:13 for 4-year-olds, with a maximum group size of 24; 1:17 for 5-year-olds, with a maximum group size of 34; and 1:18 for children ages 6 and up, with a maximum group size of 36.

Home-Based Care

Licensed home-based care, also called <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, is similar to center-based care, with two key differences: location and group size allowance. These programs typically take place in a caregiver’s home, and they are capped at eight children, including those of the provider. Wisconsin offers an online [Group Estimator](" target="_blank">family child care for providers to confirm that they are not in violation of size regulations.

Providers are required to complete 15 hours of continuing education each year. In addition, they must maintain current certificates of completion for classes in infant CPR and defibrillator use. In addition, they are required to complete a minimum of ten hours of training in caring for infants and toddlers. The difficult-to-find required caregiver-to-child ratios{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" } are as follows, per provider: There may be zero children under age 2, and up to eight children age 2 or older; one child under age 2, and up to seven children age 2 or older; 2 children under age 2, up to five children age 2 or older, and up to one additional school-age child for fewer than three hours a day; three children under age 2, two children age 2 or older, and up to three additional school-age children for fewer than three hours a day; and four children under age 2, zero children age 2 or older, and up to two additional school-age children for fewer than three hours a day. More than one provider is needed if these ratios are exceeded, but under no circumstances may home-based providers legally care for more than eight children total.

There is a form of license-exempt home-based care for child care homes{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }, at which care may be provided for between one and three children. Providers in these cases may opt to apply voluntarily for certification, a designation that qualifies them to receive child care subsidies.

Unlicensed Care

Unless a program is expressly exempt (a list of such program types may be found <a href="{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow" }), it must be licensed. Exempt programs include child care homes (mentioned above), child care programs for school-aged children, care that is given by a relative, certain public and parochial care programs, programs that take place in the child’s home, and programs that operate infrequently. Providers of the first two types of exempt programs may, however, opt to pursue [certification](" target="_blank">here, which qualifies them to receive subsidies. It is important to note that in the case of certified care, state regulations are merely meant to ensure “adequate child care."

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