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In-home Preschool Startup Costs and How to Keep Them Low

Starting a family child care in your home can be a great way to fulfill your passion for working with children, give you more flexibility and ownership over your career and schedule, and even earn more money than you would at a traditional child care center.

But even if you’ve been teaching for awhile, you probably don’t already have a stockpile of cots, diaper pails, and learning materials for 6+ little ones lying around your home . . . and that’s okay! You may have read articles that say startup costs for family child care are prohibitively high.

But you absolutely don’t need to break the bank to start your own daycare or preschool. Don’t let in-home preschool startup costs hold you back.

Here we explain the upfront costs and offer budgeting tips from Wonderschool directors on how to shop strategically and keep expenses low.

The Non-negotiables: Budget What You Need for Day One

There are certain things you absolutely must have on hand before welcoming families to your home for preschool tours and, later, for the first day of learning, says Rebecca Grubman, Wonderschool’s Director of Operations.

From licensing expenses to everyday supplies, here’s what you should expect to purchase before the first day if you’re operating out of California, no matter what age group you’re teaching:

  1. Online or in-person California licensing orientation: $25
  2. License application fee: In California, $73 for a small license and $140 for a large license
  3. EMSA-qualified CPR course: $70-$110, depending on provider
  4. EMSA-qualified Preventative health and safety course: $70-110, depending on provider
  5. State required immunizations – In California, these are MMR (measles), TDAP (whooping cough), a negative TB test clearance, and a flu shot (although the flu shot can be waived)

NOTE: Items 3-5 are requirements for employment in any child care center, not just for an in-home family child care.

You’ll also need to ensure that you have the required health and safety features in place, including:

  • Safety gates
  • Outlet covers
  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit
  • Smoke alarm
  • Carbon monoxide alarm
  • Backpack with emergency supplies and water

Bonus: if you’ve lived in your home for a while or are a parent, you probably already have a lot of these materials already!

Now that your space is in compliance with health and safety regulations, you’ll also need learning supplies and other daily operating materials, including:

  • Kid-sized table and chairs
  • Cubbies
  • Diapers and diaper pails, a changing table or pad, a child toilet or child-sized toilet seat, depending on needs of children in the program
  • Developmentally appropriate materials and equipment for different learning centers and exploration (e.g. a reading corner, sensory activities such as Play-Doh, art supplies, etc.)
  • A rug for circle time
  • Cots, cribs, or pack and plays for napping (for a full-day program)

Keep In-home Preschool Startup Costs Low: Prioritize Purchases

You don’t need to obsess over purchasing enough supplies for an entire class—especially before you have students enrolled.

When parents visit your home for a tour, they are generally more concerned that you have a safe and uncluttered learning environment than if you have a materials closet stuffed to the brim, said Evelyn Nichols, a teacher and mentor for Wonderschool directors.

She advises focusing on outfitting your space with multipurpose items such as tables, chairs, a soft rug, and basic materials for learning centers. Once you begin receiving deposits for your students, you can beef up your collection of books, toys, cots, cleaning supplies, and more.

Inside a family child care home

Keep In-home Preschool Startup Costs Low: 9 Ways to Save on the Essentials

Start a wishlist

Using the items mentioned above as a starting point, begin by making a list of all the things you’d like to have for your school. Then, reach out to community centers, parent groups on Facebook, and neighborhood forums like Nextdoor letting them know that you are starting a school and ask if they have anything they’d like to get rid of (this is also a great way to market your school!)

From furniture and Legos to outdoor toys and science materials, you’ll be shocked at how many people are thrilled to clear space in their homes as their kids age.

Fair warning: You will probably end up with more donated goods than you actually need, so be careful not to hoard things, advises Grubman.

Anything that’s put in the classroom should serve a distinct learning purpose. Take the time to go through everything you receive and donate what you don’t need.

Often, gently used items make a great “starter set” for your tours and first few weeks of school, and then you can rotate them out for items you love once you receive your first few deposits and have a better idea of what will work in your space.

Connect with other teachers

Maybe you already have a network of teachers that you can tap into, or we can help connect you with other Wonderschool teachers in your area with whom you can swap ideas, curriculum, and supplies. Many of our teachers save money by exchanging materials with other Wonderschool teachers.

Go natural

Teachers know that natural items and things discovered around the house often make the best arts and crafts and creative play materials—think pinecones, leaves, dried beans, paper plates, toilet paper rolls, empty egg cartons, the list goes on.

nature and discovery center and outdoor garden area are both enriching options that can be put together for next to nothing.

Natural materials also lend themselves to great outdoor play areas!

Several Wonderschool teachers have set up incredible outdoor spaces using natural materials that are free of cost.

For example, one teacher built a sandbox with tree branches as the outer area. At Little Lemon Tree Nursery School, director Devon Schlegelmilch does an amazing job incorporating gardening, trees, and plants into art projects and outdoor play. The sky is the limit when it comes to repurposing materials for creative play!

Take a cue from Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) and Emergent Curriculum

Many of Wonderschool’s school directors practice these tried-and-true child care methodologies that take a simplified approach to classroom materials.

The RIE’s Educaring® Approach encourages caretakers to provide infants with only enough help as necessary and to allow the child to master her own actions. This means open-ended toys and materials; a clear, uncluttered space with plenty of room for movement; and not a lot of specialized equipment.

Many of our teachers of older children practice “emergent curriculum,” which is a way of planning a curriculum that is based on the children’s interest and passion.

Using this method, you can wait and see what your students express interest in before you invest in tons of materials at the beginning. Many things can wait until you’re further along with your school, know your students better, and have a more stable income.

Partner with Parents

It’s not uncommon for family child care homes to ask parents to supply some of the materials for their child, including blankets, diapers, wipes, pack and play cribs, car seats, and sheets for naptime.

While most of this is completely reasonable, keep in mind that if you ask parents to provide more labor-intensive items (like food), you may need to reduce tuition slightly.

Simplify food prep

It can be costly to serve fresh, healthy food. Contact your local child care resource and referral program to learn about the National School Lunch Program through the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services.

Administered by state agencies, the program offers monthly financial support to family child care providers for serving nutritious meals. There are some rules involved, including mandatory trainings and visits to your school.

Once approved by your state’s education agency to participate in these programs, you must submit a monthly claim for reimbursement to receive payment for meals served.

To apply for the food program, you must have children currently enrolled at your school, serve meals that are in compliance with the USDA’s food requirements, keep daily records of food served and children in attendance at meals, attend a mandatory training, and comply with other program requirements.

Consider your age group

Family child cares that serve only infants (0-2 years) typically cost less to start than those that serve older children, Nichols says.

Because of the high demand for infant care, you will have an easier time finding families and won’t have to purchase a lot of specialized equipment (especially if you follow the RIE method).

Think: lots of open-ended materials and open space for movement. By serving only infants, you can strategically optimize just one or two rooms of your home, and don’t necessarily need to transform your entire house into a full-fledged preschool the moment you open your doors.

Creatively use existing space

You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars in costly renovations to your home if you smartly use your existing space and take advantage of community resources, like libraries and parks.

If you don’t have it in your budget to purchase a 300-book library for your little ones right away, make a class trip to the library part of your routine. If you don’t have a backyard (or if yours is in need of some serious landscaping), a regular field trip to the nearby park may be in order.

Don’t stress if you don’t have the resources to update every inch of your home—spending time outside in the community is a great way to connect your students with others and avoid not changing your whole house at once, Nichols says.

On the flip side, if you do have a backyard, consider integrating the outdoors into your school’s theme, as director Devon Schlegelmilch did at Little Lemon Tree Nursery School.

Her approach is a play-based, emergent curriculum in an outdoor setting, taking place predominantly in her backyard. Research shows us that children who play outdoors are happier and less anxious than those cooped up inside all day, and the natural environment fosters children’s connection to the world around them.

An outdoor school requires minimal investment throughout your home.

Be a smart shopper

Nichols’s go-to places for new and gently used items are:

  • Dollar Tree and Daiso – for science materials like magnifying glasses and gardening materials
  • – for art and cleaning supplies
  • SCRAP (San Francisco)- for art supplies and materials
  • Home Depot – for lumber to build outdoor play materials (such a planter box or sandbox). Mention that you’re a teacher and you may get some free extras lying around in the back!
  • Goodwill and Thrift Town – for furniture like tables, play kitchens, couches, and bookshelves
  • IKEA – for furniture, toys, home décor, and kitchenware
  • Chloe’s Closet (San Francisco and Berkeley) – for gently used toys
  • Target – for storage and organizational items
  • Warehouse stores like Costco or Sam’s Club for stocking up on items in bulk, like paper plates, paper towels, and cleaning supplies

If you don’t have time to scour used stores and aren’t much of a DIYer, Nichols says you can furnish an entire school from IKEA for under $2,000.

From bookshelves to easels and art supplies to cubbies and organization systems, everyone’s favorite budget furniture retailer has pretty much everything you might have in mind. Many of its pieces are made from natural materials like wood, which is preferable over plastic.

Before You Buy Anything to Start Your Preschool or Daycare, Ask Yourself…

The more physical space an item takes up, the harder it will be to get rid of (or keep in storage, if you change your mind about it), Nichols warns.

She advises that before purchasing large, expensive items, ask yourself if it fits with the feel of your school, and if it is multipurpose. If the answer to both is yes, it may be a good investment. If you’re unsure, stick to purchasing smaller, more inexpensive items at the beginning, which give you more freedom to swap out with different things if you prefer later on down the road.

Starting a preschool or daycare does require some upfront costs, but with a little strategic planning (and shopping), you will be on your way to launching your family child care without taking out a loan or breaking the bank.

At Wonderschool, we’re here to help you every step of the way—from providing you with a custom shopping list for your school to connecting you with other Wonderschool teachers in your area to swap supplies with.

Contact us today and let us help you make your dream of starting your own preschool a reality.


Julia was a Community Success Manager at Wonderschool. She worked with providers to help them market their programs to prospective families. She has 8 years of experience in marketing and project management.