Developmentally Appropriate Practice Handbook

Chapter 3

Characteristics of a Developmentally Appropriate Classroom

photo of children playing in learning centers

photo, “Fun at Preschool,” licensed under Creative Commons CC BY by Madgerly taken December 19, 2012, from Flickr

There are as many lists of the characteristics of developmentally appropriate practice as there are authors of those lists. Often, teachers struggle to explain exactly what makes a classroom developmentally appropriate. They simply state that they know developmentally appropriate when they see it. Most early childhood educators would agree though that developmentally appropriate practice requires caring relationships, active and hands-on learning, play, a focus on the whole child, meaningful lessons, age-appropriate appropriate instruction, individually appropriate instruction, culturally responsive practices, open-ended activities and joy.

Caring Relationships

Relationships motivate humans to learn. Have you been in a situation where you worked a little harder, studied a little longer because someone you cared about believed in your ability to succeed? This is the power of a relationship. It is seen in a baby’s first steps which are so often towards a beloved caregiver or family member. It is seen in the hesitation of a child who looks to a parent for reassurance before going to school for the first time. When people are in settings where they are loved and valued, they excel. Teachers who implement developmentally appropriate practice take the time to develop strong, caring relationships with the children they teach, as well as their families. They promote feelings of love and security so that children feel safe to take the risks inherent in learning.   

Children construct their understandings about the world around them through interactions with other members of the community (both adults and peers). Thus, early childhood educators actively work to build their own relationships with each child as well as foster the development of relationships among the children. Educators regularly seek out opportunities for extended conversations with each child, including those with whom they do not share a language, through verbal and nonverbal interactions. Opportunities to play together, collaborate on investigations and projects, and talk with peers and adults enhance children’s development and learning and should be available to all children, with support as needed. Interacting in small groups provides a context for children to extend their thinking, practice emerging language skills, build on one another’s ideas, and cooperate to solve problems. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 15)

Video Moment

Watch the brief video “Building Positive Relationships with Young Children” by Eastern Connecticut State University Center for Early Childhood Education.


Active and Hands-on Learning

 Think back to the lessons you remember most clearly from your early education. Chances are that you do not remember sitting in a group identifying flashcards or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. While it is possible to learn by rote, deeper learning occurs when the child is more actively engaged in the activity.


Video Moment

Watch the video “Acting Out Stories” by High Scope US to see how a teacher makes a literacy lesson active and hands-on.

Activities which are hands-on involve having the child construct their own understanding and usually require the child to manipulate materials.  This actively engages the child. Lessons that require children to brainstorm, problem solve, and be creative involve higher level thinking and result in quality learning.


Video Moment

Watch this brief video by Peep and the Big Wide World in which a teacher demonstrates many active ways that he teaches colors. (Note: After clicking on the link, you will need to scroll down the page to find the video.)



Play is essential for all children, birth through age 8. Play develops young children’s symbolic and imaginative thinking, peer relationships, language (English and/or additional languages), physical development, and problem-solving skills. All young children need daily, sustained opportunities for play, both indoors and outdoors. Play helps children develop large-motor and fine-motor physical competence, explore and make sense of their world, interact with others, express and control their emotions, develop symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Consistently, studies find clear links between play and foundational capacities such as working memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 9)


Early childhood settings should emphasize free play. Free play is not directed by the adult. During free play children decide what to play, how to play, and with whom to play. Adults support learning during play by putting materials in the classroom which are likely to stimulate complex play themes. Toys that are designed to be used in one way are less likely to promote complex play than are toys that can be used in many ways. Have you ever heard a parent joke that their child ignored their birthday presents and instead spent the entire day playing with the boxes they came in? This is a perfect example of the type of complex play that can be facilitated with materials that can be used in many ways.  As a bonus, these material are often less expensive than toys with television or movie tie-ins.


Video Moment

Watch the brief video “Play in Early Childhood: The Role of Play in Any Setting” by Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.


 In addition to creating an environment conducive to play, adults facilitate learning through play by playing with the children. When doing this, avoid taking charge of the play. Instead, subtly introduce new skills and thoughts into the children’s play with questions and comments. For example, if children are pretending to cook, you can ask them what they’re making and cook beside them. If you want to introduce writing into the play, you can pretend that you ran out of an ingredient and need to go to the grocery store. You can then model writing a grocery list.


Video Moment

            Watch the video “Making a School Bus” by High Scope US to see how teachers can support children’s play.


DAP in Practice

 I used to spend learning centers wiping tables, doing paperwork, and taking a breather. The children were all busy and I was there for emergencies; so, I figured I was doing my job. After all, it was just play.

Then I learned about developmentally appropriate practice and realized I was missing out on a huge opportunity to promote the children’s learning. Now I spend most of learning centers time playing with the children; some of the time I spend quietly observing and taking notes. By playing with the children I have a much better understanding of what they are interested in, how they try to solve conflicts, and how they use the different materials in my room.

As a result, I’ve replaced about a third of my toys. For example, I found that many of the dress-up clothes I had were going unused. At the same time, I watched them tie a baby blanket around their shoulders to make a scarf, tie is around their waist to make a skirt, and lay it on the floor to make a beach towel for sun-bathing. This led me to take out many of my traditional dress-up clothes and replace them with large scarves that the children can use in a variety of ways.

Playing with the children has also let me gently guide them towards more academic learning during learning centers. Thinking of ways to introduce reading, writing, and counting into their play, when I never know what they’re going to want to play next, keeps me on my toes.

The other day, I was playing beside three children building with the blocks. They began talking about whose block structure was the best. Another child noticed and stated which one they thought was the best. With some scaffolding, we decided to have all the children vote. We talked about what words we could use to describe really good block structures and came up with “tremendous,” “huge,” and “awesome.” I wrote these words on slips of paper and all interested children voted on which word best matched each structure. We counted the votes, awarded winners, and took a photo of each child with their winning block structure. It took much longer than I had planned for learning centers that day but the entire class was actively engaged and I was able to integrate so many math and literacy skills. It was well worth the extra time. And, it would have never happened if I hadn’t been playing with the children!


Whole Child

Sometimes teachers feel as if their responsibility is to teach children academic skills. They imply that teaching skills in other developmental domains is not their job. However, children will not develop strong academic skills without adequate progress in other areas of development. Think of the toddler who, because of a physical disability, is unable to move independently. This child, dependent on others to get from one place to another, will be unable to explore the environment. This child may even be unable to participate in typical toddler activities that teach object permanence (like looking for objects when they fall out of sight), cause and effect (like pushing buttons that make lids on toys pop up or music play) and other foundational cognitive skills. Even though this child may have been born with intact cognitive abilities, their motor delays are likely to cause delays in early academic skills without specific intervention.

Because of the interrelatedness of the areas of development, it is important for the early childhood educator to teach the whole child. This means that educators need to focus not only on academic (or cognitive) growth but also on physical (motor) skills, language skills, and social-emotional (social & play) skills. By addressing all areas of development, teachers ensure that they teach the whole child.

photo of children playing with play dough and rollers

photo, “Preschool Joy,” licensed under Creative Commons CC BY by Kristin :: Prairie Daze taken October 25, 2012, from Flickr

An effective way to teach the whole child is to use an integrated curriculum. An integrated curriculum is one in which each lesson touches on skills in multiple areas of development. For example, the activity discussed previously where the children voted on block structures integrated physical skills (building with blocks), language skills (selecting appropriate vocabulary to describe block structures), literacy skills (writing and reading those vocabulary words), math skills (counting the votes and using mathematical terms like “most”), and social studies content (voting).

When you integrate curriculum, you are more likely to teach skills in context; teaching skills in context results in better learning. Imagine that you were taught a random word in a foreign language. How likely would you be to remember it? Now imagine that you were taught a song using that word. Would that help? Teaching academic skills in isolation using rote teaching methods like flashcards and worksheets may help some children memorize the required material; however, learning is more efficient when you use an integrated curriculum.


Video Moment

Watch the video “Buying Shoes” by High Scope US to see how a teacher integrates multiple skills by playing with her children in the dramatic play center.


Meaningful Lessons

Remember the discussion about learning a new word in a foreign language? What if the word you were being taught meant “bathroom” and you needed to say the word correctly to be excused to use the restroom? Would that increase the likelihood that you learned the word? When something being taught is important to the learner, the learner is motivated to learn. Teachers can capitalize on this by focusing on topics which are of interest to the students.

Effective educators redesign rote learning activities into more meaningful ones. For example, instead of having a child write their name five times on a worksheet, have the child write their name to label their artwork or to sign in for attendance. Instead of having children count numbers on a calendar, have the children count out supplies to make sure there are enough. Instead of having children learn to read high frequency words (like “the” and “is) use environmental print by labeling a items throughout the classroom and drawing the children’s attention to those words when they appear in books.

Humans learn by making connections between new information and information we already know (background knowledge). When children can connect new information to information in their background knowledge/everyday lives, they will deem the new information to be meaningful and be likely to learn it effectively. This tricky part of this is that all the children in your classroom will bring different repositories of background knowledge.


DAP in Practice

 I love teaching with my iPad but I haven’t gotten around to downloading any apps. What I use constantly is the camera. My children love looking at photos of themselves. During learning centers I frequently take photos of the children playing then use these to engage in conversations with them about what they’re doing.

This December I decided to print photos and have each child make a book to share with their parents as a Christmas present. The children were really excited about this project and it was proving to be an excellent way to engage in literacy instruction. I even fit in some math skills as I told the children I only had enough ink and paper to print five pictures for each child. As we photographed and printed we would count how many pictures had been completed so far then figure out how many more the child had left.

During this, I noticed that Sara wasn’t really participating. She wasn’t talking about the project and hadn’t asked me to take any pictures of her. I pulled her aside and asked her if something was wrong. She told me she didn’t want to do the project. I was puzzled but told her that was fine. When her mother came to pick her up, I shared what had happened. Sara’s mother told me that Sara probably didn’t want to participate because they were Jewish.

I felt horrible. I had brought up holidays during circle one class and asked the children to share but now I realized that Sara had been silent. Maybe she had felt uncomfortable sharing when her celebrations were different. Or maybe she just didn’t feel like talking that day. Either way, I had made an assumption that was false.  This had resulted in Sara feeling isolated from what would have otherwise been a valuable learning activity.

photo of a toddler

photo, “Toddler,” licensed under Creative Commons CC BY, by Jessicahtam, Taken February 22, 2010, from Flickr


Age-Appropriate Instruction

Would you try to teach a one-year-old to jump rope? Of course not. Children at that age do not have the prerequisite motor skills or the necessary foundational skills (motor planning, attention, etc.) to accomplish this task. Research tells us that the brains of young children function somewhat differently than do the brains of adolescents or adults. By presenting instruction which is age appropriate, you increase the likelihood that your students’ brains are ready for the instruction you are providing.

Research also tells us that there are critical time periods for certain types of learning. For example, children’s brains are wired to most effectively learn language during the first few years of life. As children get older, the neural pathways for the sounds the child hasn’t been hearing begin to be pruned away. It is possible to learn a new language later; many people do. However, additional languages come much more easily when children are exposed to them early. By taking advantage of these optimal periods, educators maximize learning. Using age-appropriate instruction does this.


Individually Appropriate Instruction

The development of young children is often uneven. Not all children who are typically developing meet developmental milestones at the same time. While people say that children first walk at around a year old, early childhood professionals know that it is perfectly normal for a child to start walking as early as 9 or 10 months or as late as 14 or 15 months. Sometimes a child will seem to put all their energy into learning motor skills for a while and their language will lag. Later the same child might suddenly exhibit an explosion of vocabulary but be slow to pick up additional motor skills. All of this is normal, but it means that teachers cannot assume that all of a child’s skills are exactly at the four-year-old level just because the child is four years old.

Effective, developmentally appropriate curriculum is based on what is known about the interrelationships and sequences of ideas, so that children’s later abilities and understandings can be built on those already acquired. At the same time, the rate and pattern of each child’s learning is distinctive. An effective teacher must account for all these factors, maintaining high expectations while setting challenging, achievable goals and providing the right amount and type of scaffolding for each child. (NAEYC, 2009b, p. 2)


Meeting every child where they are and taking them to the next level helps them to become confident, self-reliant and anxious to continue to on their path to understanding the world around them. “Children need to feel successful in new tasks a significant proportion of the time to promote their motivation and persistence. Confronted by repeated failure, most children will simply stop trying. Repeated opportunities to practice and consolidate new skills and concepts are also essential for children to reach the threshold of mastery at which they can go on to use this knowledge or skill, applying it in new situations” (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 13). Individualizing instruction for each child allows for growth without frustration.

Children do not just differ in regard to their skills levels.

Educators understand that each child reflects a complex mosaic of knowledge and experiences that contributes to the considerable diversity among any group of young children. These differences include the children’s various social identities, interests, strengths, and preferences; their personalities, motivations, and approaches to learning; and their knowledge, skills, and abilities related to their cultural experiences, including family languages, dialects, and vernaculars. Children may have disabilities or other individual learning needs, including needs for accelerated learning. Sometimes these individual learning needs have been diagnosed, and sometimes they have not. Early childhood educators recognize this diversity and the opportunities it offers to support all children’s learning by recognizing each child as a unique individual with assets and strengths to contribute to the early childhood education learning environment. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 7)


Teachers must look for ways to involve each child in their own learning. Awareness of each child’s personality and learning style helps the teacher draw students into the lesson and check for understanding before moving them onto the next concept.


Video Moment

See how this teacher uses a variety of methods to help students better understand colors. By varying questions and providing individual guidance, each child was able to master the concept being addressed in the lesson. (NOTE: You will need to scroll down the page to find the video.)


 Using an emergent curriculum is powerful way to make sure that your instruction is individually appropriate. An emergent curriculum is one which “emerges” from the children’s interests. Instead of determining at the beginning of the year what topics will be studied each month, the teacher using emergent curriculum watches the children’s play and listens to their conversations to see what is currently interesting them. The teacher then designs the curriculum around the children’s interests. This guarantees that the topics being studied relate to the children’s background knowledge facilitating learning.


Culturally Responsive Practices

In today’s culturally diverse society, it is imperative that teachers work to intentionally include a variety of cultures in their daily lessons and learning centers. Multicultural educational opportunities should be included in every aspect of the curriculum: environment, play and everyday activities. Items (clothing, specific cooking utensils, art, and musical instruments) that are representative of differing cultures and ethnic groups should be introduced and made available for all children to explore.

Teaching is not neutral. If our goal is to nurture each child’s cognitive, academic. linguistic, and socio-emotional development, our responsibility is to recognize and nurture diversity, to guide each child’s growing understandings and interactions, and to create a learning environment that is inclusive of diverse families and communities. It may seem that academic pressures don’t leave time for “frills” like multicultural studies, but, if we don’t want to replicate societal inequities, multicultural education is not a frill! “In a culturally inclusive environment, teachers treat all students equitably, their languages and cultures are incorporated into the curriculum, and they are supported in becoming active seekers and producers of knowledge.” (NAME, n.d.)


Video Moment

Watch this brief video focusing on multicultural instruction for very young children by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services entitled “Recognizing Bias and Promoting Equity in Early Childhood Settings.”  It includes comments by the President of NAEYC.


All children must feel included to maximize learning. Learning about others helps children develop a better understanding of the world around them. Include a variety of choices for dramatic play including regional clothing, dolls of varying ethnicities, and household items from different cultures. The music center is an excellent place to showcase instruments from around the world.

Putting it into Place


  • nclude pictures of children of other cultures in the classroom. Focus on children of their own age in familiar situations, i.e., school, play, church, etc.
  • Introduce familiar songs sung in different languages as well as songs that are representative of different cultures.
  • Include games, both indoor and outdoor, that are played in other countries.
  • Learning centers should include objects and activities from around the world, including musical instruments, art materials, toys and dolls.
  • If food is included in the center, include items from other regions and cultures to introduce children to something they may not have regularly.
  • Teach children simple often used words in various languages, i.e, “hello”, “goodbye”, “how are you”, etc.
  • Include celebrations of regional holidays in your lessons. Children can create simple dress, make representative crafts and enjoy a snack that is indicative of the holiday. Include information for parents in the daily report to facilitate at-home discussion.


Video Moment

Watch this video “Chopsticks” by Peggy Morrison showing how a preschool teacher integrates items from her children’s home lives into learning centers.

In addition to bringing in objects from different cultures, particularly from the cultures of the children in your classroom, effective early childhood teachers read books containing strong characters from diverse backgrounds. Classroom books should include stories of other cultures and nations. When selecting books to share, particularly if you do not share the background being portrayed, make sure that you do a little research. Books written by authors who share the background of their main character are most likely to be authentic portrayals. Books written by others, including many books by well-known children’s book authors, may inadvertently portray stereotypes or convey misinformation. One list of children’s books by diverse authors can be found at:

You can also ask for assistance finding appropriate books at your local library.

Community and family partners can provide resources and insights on cultures, customs and traditions with which you may not be familiar. Don’t hesitate to reach out to others for assistance with creating a diverse classroom environment. Invite guest speakers, mystery readers and special visitors into the class to help students learn about others.

To fully support each child’s optimal development and learning in an increasingly diverse society, early childhood educators need to understand the implications of these contexts. By recognizing that children’s experiences may vary by their social identities (for example, by race or ethnicity, language, gender, class, ability, family composition, and economic status, among others), with different and intersecting impacts on their development and learning, educators can make adaptations to affirm and support positive development of each child’s multiple social identities. Additionally, educators must be aware of, and counter, their own and larger societal biases that may undermine a child’s positive development and well-being. Early childhood educators have a professional responsibility to be life-long learners who are able to foster life-long learning in children; in this, they must keep abreast of research developments, while also learning continuously from families and communities they serve. (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 7)


            While providing multicultural instruction is a necessary step for effective early childhood educators, culturally responsive instruction goes beyond this. In addition to making sure their classroom reflects a variety of cultural backgrounds, particularly the cultures of the children in the classroom, teachers who use culturally responsive practices intentionally link instruction to children’s background knowledge, relate instruction to children’s everyday lives, leverage children’s cultural capital by providing opportunities for all children to share their knowledge and experiences, use a strengths-based approach and build strong relationships with children. They involve students in activities that benefit others to encourage kindness, sharing and awareness of the world beyond their own.


Video Moment

Watch this brief video “2012 Teaching Tolerance Award Winner Robert Sautter” by Teaching Tolerance in which a kindergarten teacher shares his culturally responsive teaching practices.

Open-Ended Activities

When you use flashcards to teach colors, children have the opportunity to learn to identify colors. When you provide children with objects of different sizes, shapes, and colors and ask them to sort the objects into groups, children have the opportunity to learn to identify colors, shapes, and size. They also have the opportunity to practice problem solving and language skills as they determine which objects go where and explain their decisions. Open-ended activities, activities that have more than one right answer, provide far more learning opportunities than do closed-ended activities like worksheets and flashcards. “Giving children autonomy and agency in how they approach problems, make hypotheses, and explore potential solutions with others promotes deeper learning and improves executive functioning” (NAEYC, 2020a, p. 10).


Video Moment

Watch the video “Singing and Moving” by High Scope US in which a teacher engages the children in an activity incorporating movement which follows the children’s lead.

Open-ended questions can help the teacher lead the activity in the desired direction while challenging the children to observe, react, explore and draw conclusions about the topic at hand. Open-ended activities and questions allow children to lead instruction and take ownership of their own learning. Lyndsey Lynch (2019) recommends that teachers ask themselves:

  • How comfortable am I with letting students choose what or how they will learn?
  • What classroom resources could benefit my students’ autonomy and discovery?
  • How will I teach and model resources so that students can access them independently and responsibly?
  • How comfortable am I with giving students space and time to explore and problem-solve for themselves?

In its 2020 Position Statement on developmentally appropriate practice, NAEYC emphasizes the importance of open-ended activities.

Opportunities for agency—that is, the ability to make and act upon choices about what activities one will engage in and how those activities will proceed—must be widely available for all children, not limited as a reward after completing other tasks or only offered to high-achieving students. Ultimately, motivation is a personal decision based on the learner’s determination of meaningfulness, interest, and engagement. Educators can promote children’s agency and help them feel motivated by engaging them in challenging yet achievable tasks that build on their interests and that they recognize as meaningful and purposeful to their lives. (p. 11)


DAP in Practice

When I began teaching, I believed that good teachers were always firmly in charge of their classrooms. I planned everything well in advance and rigidly stuck to my plans. I provided many academic activities to my students throughout the day. Even in learning centers, I had one mandatory activity in each center designed to teach academic skills.

I remember one day it began to snow. Playground time was finished for the day and we were getting ready to lie down for rest time. The children desperately wanted to go outside or watch the snow through the window, but I stuck firmly to our schedule resulting in no one getting much rest or enjoying the snow.

Since then, I’ve learned the importance of following the children’s lead. I still start each day with a plan, but my plan includes plenty of opportunities for the children to tell me what they want to do and how they want to do it. There are days when teachable moments occur, and the plan goes out the window as I follow the children down a rabbit hole of exploration.

Last week when we were on the playground, some children noticed that the windows in the building across the street were being washed. Someone was hanging in the air in a harness to complete this task. The children were fascinated. We spent extra time on the playground watching and talking about how we thought the person washing the windows felt about that job. This led to a discussion of other unusual jobs. When we went inside, we clustered around the class computer looking up unusual jobs the children suggested like who keeps the animal’s teeth clean at the zoo. The children then each drew a picture of someone doing an unusual job and dictated a sentence about how they felt about that job. It turned into a great opportunity to work on language skills, literacy skills, and social-emotional skills.


Video Moment

Watch the video “Reading Picture Books” by High Scope US to see an adult follow the children’s lead while sharing a book.



How do you know a classroom where developmentally appropriate practice is being used? You can tell by the existence of joy. When you implement the characteristics of developmentally appropriate practice, children and teachers alike have the freedom to enjoy the learning process. Joyful learning is effective learning!


Putting it into Place

  • Whenever possible, lessons should focus on children with a minimum of adult direction. Children should determine the direction of the activity with the adult acting as facilitator providing guiding questions to help meet desired outcomes.
  • Plan to be flexible in your planning. Accept the changes that inevitably happen.
  • Use professional development opportunities to keep current on emerging teaching methods, dealing with emergent situations, changing standards, and new finding regarding child development.
  • Do not hesitate to try new ideas. Assess their success, make any necessary changes and try again.
  • Ask for help if you are not meeting with success.
  • When planning, anticipate children’s questions and reactions. Be prepared with additional questions to guide them to the desired outcomes of the lesson.
  • Make note of individual student’s interests and work to integrate those whenever possible.