What Do We Mean by Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Definition and Advice

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Defining Developmentally Appropriate Practice

Developmentally appropriate practice has become a buzz phrase among early childhood educators, but really what do we mean when we say developmentally appropriate practice? Developmentally appropriate practice requires that teachers make decisions daily based on their knowledge of child development, taking into consideration individual learning differences and social and cultural influences. A simple definition of developmentally appropriate practices would be a setting and curriculum that meets the cognitive, emotional, and physical needs of children based on child development theories and observations of children’s individual strengths and weaknesses. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has pioneered the use of developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood classrooms, and is considered the topmost expert in the field of early childhood education.

What Does It Look Like?

Developmentally appropriate practice can be hard to spot by the untrained eye. Many preschool parents will walk into a developmentally appropriate classroom and exclaim, “But they are just playing!” Developmentally appropriate practice can best be observed when there is an active learning environment. In active learning, children come to understand concepts by playing, hypothesizing, experimenting, and doing. Most activities in a developmentally appropriate preschool classroom are not teacher directed. The projects and activities are set up based on individual children’s needs, and take into account each child’s strengths and weaknesses, developmental level and interests. There is a delicate balance of teacher directed and child centered activities, with minimal time spent in teacher directed activities such as circle time. Children are not required to sit still and absorb information for long periods of time without being active participants in the activity. Developmentally appropriate environments take advantage of teachable moments and capitalize on intentional teaching techniques. Children are encouraged to interact with materials in their environment, as well as with teachers and peers. When observing a classroom for developmentally appropriate practices, be sure to take notes, documenting the activities you see and determining whether they are teacher directed or child centered. Observe other classrooms for tips to set up active learning center environments.

Why Is Developmentally Appropriate Practice Important?

Research in child development shows that all children develop in a sequential, predictable manner. While all children develop at their own rate, they tend to reach milestones in a predictable pattern. Observing and documenting the physical, emotional, and cognitive development of each child in your care will ensure that you are providing the best learning environment possible. Implementing developmentally appropriate activities and using intentional teaching techniques will help you understand how best to serve the children and families in your classroom. By providing an active learning environment, teachers help children make decisions, solve conflicts, and develop a sense of community. While the teachers are the sole decision makers in a developmentally appropriate classroom, they must be sure to take into account the individual learning styles of the children in their care, as well as any social or family concerns.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is the foremost resource for developmentally appropriate practices. They have made it their goal to define what we mean by developmentally appropriate practices, as well as outline the best ways to implement developmentally appropriate practices into your own classrooms.

References and Resources:

Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs; Sue Bredekamp and Carol Copple; 2005

NAEYC website