Inclusion and wellbeing

What is developmentally appropriate practice?

Understanding DAP and how to apply it in early education
An orange cartoon image of an early years educator measuring a toddler against a height chart.
August 28, 2023
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here’s the quick run-down.

  • Heather Bernt-Santy has worked in early years care and education for over 30 years and is now a  Program Chair and Assistant Professor in Early Childhood Education.
  • Rather than rely on off-the-shelf “age-appropriate” activities, Heather recommends creating activities and opportunities that reflect the “individual skills, needs, and interests of the children in your care.”
  • Heather shares real-life examples of how she provided activities based on a book she read with the children was working with and reminds us to reflect on what young children need from adults’ plans for them.

If you read social media comments or posts about working with young children, you may see blanket statements about what is appropriate or inappropriate for children. This implies that there’s a one-size-fits-all definition of ‘appropriate,’ that you can apply simply by seeing activity instructions.

To unpack this issue, we need to address developmentally appropriate practice. How do we define it in early education, and what does it look like in practice? How does it meet the ground, in the day-to-day happenings of your child care program?

In this article, we’ll start to unpack what developmentally appropriate practice means for you, and how you can apply it as an early childhood educator.

An early yeas child climbs up an outdoor climbing wall, at an early years setting.

How to decide if an experience or activity is developmentally appropriate

Let’s take an example. To make a decision about the appropriateness of a plan when you’re working with children, you need to know more than just the steps to an activity, and what the final product should look like.

Here’s what else is needed:

  • A deep knowledge of child development
  • A knowledge of how young children learn best
  • To be attuned to the individual children in your program
  • Typical developmental priorities of children of different ages
  • The individual skills, needs, and interests of the children in your care

Listed all at once, it may seem like a lot. But in practice, you’ll find that this knowledge becomes second nature and reinforces every decision you make for your children. 

When you have this knowledge, you can make developmentally appropriate decisions about how to engage more deeply with children. When you ensure that your expectations for children are based on how deeply you know them, and how deeply you understand development, your teaching will invite wonder, delight and exploration — and deeper learning.

What do young children need from adults’ plans for them? 

Based on how children learn, they need:

  • Opportunities for movement
    Research suggests that when children are allowed to move in many ways, it can increase memory, perception, language, attention and emotional regulation.
  • Sensory engagement
    When children are able to engage with an activity or material using many senses, it builds neural pathways in the brain, which contributes to more complex learning.
  • Opportunities for repetition
    Opportunities to repeat activities and use the same materials again and again strengthen neural connections. This increases the likelihood that concept development is achieved and extended and provides emotional comfort to children.
  • Respect for children’s intrinsic motivation
    When exploration is intrinsically motivated, children are more likely to deeply engage with materials and ideas, to stay with an activity for longer periods of time, and to retain information.
  • Ample opportunities for play
    Children learn best when they are given time, space and freedom to play, and true play encompasses all of these considerations.

And don’t forget, areas of development overlap each other.

Young children are never working on just one skill area or developmental domain - all areas of development are interrelated. A child exploring paint may be engaging their cognitive skills as they notice changes in the paint and experience cause and effect, engaging their language skills by talking to a peer or teacher about what they see or what they want to try, and engaging their physical skills by holding and manipulating the brush.

Two early years children play outside in leaves at a forest school settingl

DAP means understanding children’s individual skills, needs and interests

Developmentally appropriate practice means we can’t rely on blanket statements to make decisions. As an educator, you have to consider: what do you need to know about the individual children in your group?

Here are a few key factors that should determine your DAP decision-making:

  • Children’s interests
    We can gather information about what individual children are interested in (and therefore curious about) by observing how they play, looking for themes in the materials they choose or their conversation topics, talking with and listening to their families, and asking them.
  • Unique approaches to learning
    Which child is comfortable with new experiences and initiating exploration? Which child relies on the opportunity to watch for a while before trusting the activity or exploration materials? Which child may need to have access to the materials long after the rest of the group has moved on?
  • Individual abilities
    Which child’s sensory processes require extra consideration? Will the child who uses a wheelchair be able to join in at a table exploration? Will the child who uses AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) tools and strategies be able to fully participate in discussion?
  • Giving children choices
    Will each individual child have autonomy over their activities and bodies during the planned activity?

Two toddlers play with a Duplo train set in an early years setting

An example of DAP in practice: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom

Let’s explore an example from my own work as an educator.

Next week, the four-year-olds and I will be reading and exploring the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault. Of course, I hope that the experiences and materials we make available to the children support their development and learning, but most important to me is that my decisions and plans honour their humanity, their childhood — and that they provide space for delight and wonder.

A cursory internet search for “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom preschool activities” gives me quite a list of ideas—colouring pages, felt figures for retelling the story, filling in a coconut tree with bingo dot painters—but none of them seem to offer much depth of learning or opportunities for delight and wonder.

One of the ways that I can think about opportunities that would offer deeper, more delightful experiences is to apply what I know about developmentally appropriate practice to my planning. Using the bullet points I’ve listed above, here are some of the opportunities I invited children to explore: 

  • I looked around my classroom and thought about how I could authentically reinforce vocabulary from the story in a way that might be new to some of us. Instead of colouring or paint dotting a coconut tree, we will have A LOT of real “coconuts.” When I am writing their dictated stories, notes for my co-teacher, texts to families, I will talk about using the “alphabet.” When I move up and down to reach things or get to the floor to play, I will talk about “stooping.”
  • I know that when children and adults play together with sounds and rhythms, it strengthens the foundation for future literacy learning. So I will find ways to add “skit skat skoodle doot” to our transitions. I will incorporate lots of time to “wiggle jiggle free.” I will be sure that I can read the story to them all in such a way that it flows freely and sounds natural and fun.
  • I will make sure I have gloves for Trev, who will definitely not like touching the rough, hairy surface of a coconut but will still want to explore it.
  • I will make sure that Maitlen’s wheelchair can get close enough to the sensory tub that she can join in alongside the others to play with the pieces of chopped coconut.
  • We will use real tools (hammers, cheese graters, coconut openers) to explore every bit of a coconut.
  • To make sure we have lots of opportunities for children to move their whole bodies while exploring a coconut, we will use coconuts for bowling, and roll them through paint in large, shallow boxes that allow for whole body engagement.
  • I will take photos of it all, and display them, along with explanations of what skills and concepts are being addressed by each experience, so that the adults around me also have a learning opportunity. 

It would be much easier for me to simply pull a “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” theme box off the shelf and plug in the same colouring pages, felt board shapes, torn construction paper and glue coconut tree collage materials that were used last year.

The big ideas

It would be easy for me to plan for my imaginary ideal of a preschool child, instead of for the varied skills, priorities and experience levels of real-life children in my classroom. But focusing on what’s easy for me to plan and implement does the children in my care an injustice.

My plans and actions will be more meaningful and effective because I have relied on the aspects of developmentally appropriate practice I’ve discussed in this article. The children deserve thoughtful and skillful intention from me.

They deserve a respectful, appropriate early care and education experience.

download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Learn more about Famly

Find out below how Famly ensured the Alphabet House team felt well-supported in communicating with parents about finances and bookings, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.