Guide to Childcare in Tennessee and Finding a Program in Knoxville


Like in various countries, many childcare programs in the United States welcome children as young as 6 weeks up to when they are old enough to attend kindergarten at around age five, although some public and private preschools start serving at around age three. Quality childcare comes in different forms, and your choice will depend exclusively on your child’s and family's needs and ability to pay. Costs will vary depending on the type of care, the child’s age, and location.

It is important to clarify that enrolling your children in childcare is not mandatory, as formal schooling in Tennessee is only obligatory starting at age six. However, childcare and public preschools are good options for parents who work or study full-time and those interested in or able to support their learning and development processes.

Important: If you plan to enroll your children in U.S. childcare, please be sure to bring their birth certificates and all medical, dental, and academic records. These kinds of documents will be necessary for filing an application or general records.

Understanding Childcare in Tennessee

Childcare options and standards vary from state to state. Specifically, Tennessee has a variety of government websites and resources that you can use to make the best decision possible. Even though we highlight some of them, we encourage you to read through each linked website for further information carefully.

Types of Childcare in Tennessee

The Tennessee Department of Human Services (TNDHS) is the official state entity that provides and enforces childcare regulations. The TNDHS recognizes four main groups of licensed/approved childcare:

  1. Family Child Care Homes care for five to seven children in varying age groups in a home-type setting.

  2. Group Child Care Homes care for eight to twelve children in varying age groups in a home-type setting.

  3. Child Care Centers care for 13 or more children divided into age groups with specially assigned caregivers for each one.

  4. Drop-in centers care for 15 or more children for a maximum of seven hours per day, with a 20-hour per-week limit.

Unlike other unregulated childcare options, state-licensed/approved establishments must pass regular inspections that confirm compliance with state licensing rules. Some basic standards include safety, staff, child-to-adult ratios, program quality, and facilities.

Scoring Systems

The Tennessee Child Care Report Card is a mandatory annual evaluation required for all licensed providers open for over a year. Those open for under a year must undergo this evaluation to obtain their license. Agencies must post their report scorecard with their renewal license in a visible place to parents, so make sure to look for it during your visits. The highest score an establishment can have is 100.

In addition, the voluntary Star-Quality Child Care Program recognizes the quality of childcare providers through Star-Quality Report cards. It rates providers through a three-star system, with three being the highest in seven categories. The program also offers additional training and assistance for providers looking to improve their ratings.


As stated earlier, pricing may vary based on multiple factors, so check the program’s monthly fees before completing the enrollment application. Unfortunately, there are no free-of-charge childcare options in Tennessee or any offered by the University of Tennessee (UT). It is important to note that UT does have its childcare center, the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice, but they do not offer discounts for faculty or students.

The state does offer some payment assistance. However, those who are not U.S. citizens are usually not eligible.

TNDHS provides an official list of tips for parents about to begin their childcare search. Even though these can help as a guideline, we encourage you to personalize them depending on your needs. Specifically, they recommend parents to:

  1. Be informed and start their search early → Some important indicators to consider might be a curriculum promoting comprehensive learning and development, consistent information about your child’s development and learning progress, family engagement opportunities, using developmentally appropriate materials and equipment, and more.

  2. Visit the agency → To ensure the childcare environment would be a good fit for your child, visit each agency and speak to the staff. If your child is older, you might be able to bring them along to see their reaction to each environment.

  3. Ask questions → It is recommended to ask about things like meals, nap time, teacher-child ratios, and the agency’s curriculum. Review their Child Care Report Card and Star-Quality Report Card if available.

  4. Make Regular Drop-In Visits → After enrolling your child, make frequent visits to encourage an open partnership with the provider.

State Resources

The Tennessee Child Resource and Referral (TN CCR&R) provides free childhood resources for families, childcare professionals, employers, and the general community. CCR&R can help with information about what to look for when choosing quality child care, developmental milestones, social and emotional development, and literacy. Specifically, Knoxville falls under the East CCR&R region, and they provide phone and in-person childcare referrals.

KidCentral TN is an official resource hub developed by the state of Tennessee. From education to support, it provides a wide range of information specifically tailored for families in Tennessee, often referring parents to the state services directory.

Screenshot from the “Support” section in

Childcare in Knoxville

To find specific childcare providers in Knoxville, we recommend you use the TNDHS provider map. This tool will allow you to customize filters depending on your location, needs, and preferences. In this geographic area, you can find everything from religious-sponsored programs to providers offering various education methods and time schedules. If you do not find what you are looking for in Knox County, we recommend you search in neighboring counties such as Sevier and Blount.

Other Activities for Children in Knoxville

If you are looking for alternative activities for your younger children, we recommend you click through this list of resources available in Knoxville and the surrounding areas.

If you are looking for school enrollment resources, visit our Guide to the U.S. School System and Enrolling Kids in Tennessee Schools.

For more information and guides, please refer back to the Resource List available on the ISSS website.