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.
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:
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.
Based on how children learn, they need:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.