Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) | Quality Start

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

In crafting early learning practices for young children, attention to moments that inspire joyful learning is critical to maximizing the experience and helping children reach their full potential. This is the focus of an updated Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) guide published by The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice?

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is an educational framework that promotes each child’s optimal development and learning through a strengths-based, play-based approach. It involves recognizing and building upon the unique assets of each child, considering their individuality, family background, and community culture. DAP emphasizes active, joyful engagement in learning, ensuring that educational practices are culturally, linguistically, and ability appropriate. First published nearly 40 years ago by NAEYC, this foundational position statement highlights the importance of creating learning environments that support the whole child across all developmental and content areas, being mindful of each child’s physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being.

What are the core considerations of DAP?

There are three core considerations of DAP: commonality, individuality, and context. These considerations are meant to inform an early educators decision making and emphasize experiences that foster joyful learning. To truly be developmentally appropriate, “practices must also be culturally, linguistically, and ability appropriate for each child.”

DAP Principles

The nine principles of DAP reflect an extensive early childhood education research base. They include:

1. Dynamic Processes in Development and Learning

Development and learning are dynamic processes that reflect the complex interplay between a child’s biological characteristics and the environment, each shaping the other as well as future patterns of growth.

2. Holistic Child Development

All areas of child development—physical development, cognitive development, social and emotional development, and linguistic development (including multilingual development), as well  as approaches to learning—are important and support each other.

3. Play and Joyful Learning

Play promotes joyful learning that fosters self-regulation, language, cognitive and social competencies. Play is essential for all children, birth through age 8.

4. Cultural and Individual Variability

Although general progressions of development and learning can be identified, variations due to cultural contexts, experiences, and individual differences must also be considered.

5. Active Learners from Birth

Children are active learners from birth, constantly absorbing and organizing information to create meaning through their relationships, interactions with their environment, and overall experiences.

6. Motivation and Learning Environment

Children’s motivation to learn increases when their learning environment fosters a sense of belonging, purpose, and agency. Effective teaching methods connect children’s experiences in school or learning environment to their home and community settings.

7. Integrated Learning Approach

Children learn in an integrated way that cuts across subject areas, meaning educators need to understand learning progressions within each subject area.

8. Challenging and Reflective Learning

Development and learning advance when children are challenged to achieve at a level just beyond their current mastery and when they have many opportunities to reflect on and practice newly acquired skills.

9. Technology and Development Learning

Technology and interactive media used responsibly and intentionally can be valuable tools for supporting children’s development and learning.

Why is Developmentally Appropriate Practice Important?

The research shows that joyful learning can inspire lifelong learning. There is a real challenge, both mental and physical, in achieving this goal. NAEYC finds that it takes a self-directed mix of practice and breaks that limits frustration, inspiration and confidence through dramatic play, and an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Teachers who inspire joyful learning “foster each child’s positive identity as a curious and capable learner.” This style of teaching challenges children to “engage with core concepts from the sciences and the arts, to work collaboratively as creative problem solvers, and to expand their knowledge by listening to, examining, and discussing high-quality books.”

Examples of Developmentally Appropriate Practice

In a toddler classroom, educators implement DAP by setting up learning centers that cater to different interests and developmental stages, allowing children to choose activities that resonate with their curiosity and skill level. For instance, a sensory table with water, cups, and funnels supports fine motor skills and scientific exploration, while a cozy reading nook with a variety of books fosters language development and a love for reading. Another example is in a preschool setting, where teachers facilitate peer collaboration projects that encourage social skills, teamwork, and collective problem-solving, aligning with the principles of DAP by promoting an inclusive and interactive learning environment.

How do QSSB teachers achieve a developmentally appropriate practice?

Program administrators and teachers are trained in child development and early learning; they have completed relevant college coursework and/or ongoing professional training. Teachers introduce children to high quality learning activities that support each child’s interests, growth, and development, as well as culture and home language. These high quality learning environments are safe, healthy, and engaging, and promote effective teacher and child interactions. Children’s overall well-being, including physical, social, and emotional development, is supported.

You can read the full DAP guideline here.

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